Welcome back to our blog series by participants in our Internship in Public History program, which continues during Spring 2020. After a brief hiatus, in the next weeks we will continue with blog posts from last semester’s students who served as volunteers in public history during Summer or Fall of 2019. Then we’ll move on to students working on internships now….creatively discovering the possibilities of public history in times when publics are temporarily not convening at museums. We hope this series entertains you, in good health, wherever you are. In the second blog entry in the series, Evan Nielson describes his experiences as a public history intern at the Elgin Historical Museum. Also read, below, our first blog, by Jensen Rehn.Growing up in Bartlett, Illinois, there was always a sort of allure around the nearby city of Elgin, one of the larger suburbs in the area. Its relatively large downtown and many of its homes seem to come straight out of the early twentieth century. I’ve been passionate about history since I was a young kid, so the history behind Elgin always intrigued me. This past April, my good friend’s father, who often works in Elgin, told me about an opening for a summer internship at the Elgin Historical Museum.
Frankly, I had no idea that Elgin had a history museum, but it made total sense that they did. I was immediately interested in this opportunity; it seemed almost too ideal. Less than twenty minutes from my home, and I would get to work and do research related to my major, which can be a rare opportunity for underclassmen in the humanities. I quickly let my academic advisor know about this and he told me that this would not only be a great experience and a resume builder, but I could also receive credit hours for it through the completion of a seminar course in the fall! I enlisted the help of my roommate to shape up my mostly blank resume, and sent it to the museum director. Within a week, I knew I had the position.
I was excited, but I had a lot of questions. How can I contribute meaningfully on a day to day basis? What will this small-medium size museum be like compared to the larger ones I’m used to seeing? And how many artifacts or documents will they actually have? I had to wait for those answers for more than a month until the spring semester came to a close. I met the staff and toured the museum within a few days of coming home. I was immediately struck by how much I much I didn’t know about Elgin, but considering the town was established 1835, I really shouldn’t have been that surprised. I didn’t expect Elgin to have a rich pioneer history, but lo and behold, I saw a reproduction covered wagon and log cabin upon walking in. I had heard that Elgin was quite the impressive town in the early twentieth century, but I wasn’t aware just how important it was at the time. It sported up to date architecture, exciting city life, and a multitude of industries, the most famous being the Elgin National Watch Company and Elgin’s dairy industry. Both of those companies were nationally successful and set the standards for their products at the time. I knew I was just scratching the surface of what all I could learn.
Those earlier questions I had were answered upon my first visit (1. Assist with educational programs, enter new items into the online catalogue, work on upcoming exhibits, etc. 2. The museum is run with the same amount of care, despite the smaller scale and number of personnel on staff. 3. Quite a lot. Many items document Elgin’s most important events and integral aspects, but many give a glimpse into the minute, nuanced stories and details of the city.) but upon pondering these answers, I ran into some questions with less concrete answers. For a city like Elgin that has living pieces of history everywhere, where does a museum fit into that equation? Elginites are very proud of their heritage, and many of them have keen knowledge of their town’s past so what kind of new experience can the museum offer? That thought led me to another question: who makes up the majority of the museum’s patrons and why? Is it people who live closeby? If so, have they come before? If not, were they not aware of the museum before? It could be non-locals or travelers as well. If so, what compelled them to seek out a museum like the EHM? Either way, the EHM has so much to offer and could be appealing to all of these groups. Throughout my summer in this internship, I sought to find my own answers.