Watch this space for a series of posts written by Fall 2020 and Spring and Fall 2021 Interns! We start with some more recent interns from Fall 2021, and will feature them all, so please keep checking!
I am John Byer, a senior at UIUC with a major in History. I originally chose to intern at a museum because of my interest in history: I wanted to broaden my horizons of careers that don’t involve being a teacher. I had previously taken a course on museum studies and remembered the enjoyment I had going t museums in in Chicago, so thought I would try it out to gain some experience. I interned at the Champaign County History Museum and found the experience very rewarding as well as challenging. Through this experience, I learned a lot more about working in a museum including the day-to-day as well as the big-picture overarching goals.
For example, in the day-to-day, I did a lot of important but menial work like cataloguing new documents and artifacts or updating older catalogue entries. Although this was not the most exciting work, it taught me about the software and procedures for handling museum artifacts. This helped illuminate the museum’s larger context, as any museum will have a collection that has new items coming in or old artifacts going out. Another job I handled was digitizing oral histories. This was a fairly unique experience as I had to to change the format of old tapes into mp3s. The oral histories were pretty fun, as you never knew what you would get from tape to tape. The tapes went from people talking about their old houses and friends to some people doing stand-up comedy in an old bar.
One of the largest projects I worked on was the creation of a new exhibit for the museum. I found the exhibit work to be some of the most rewarding and challenging. I was tasked with creating an exhibit on the Urbana Pure Milk Company. It was a demanding project as I had to do research in local archives and then draft the information into labels. However, it was rewarding to construct a new exhibit and put it on display for guests to view a piece of locla history that they may not have seen or remembered in a long time. I also worked as part of the education committee looking at the bigger picture of how the museum could draw in more people and audiences. Appealing to a broader audience is a challenge all museums face. My experience in the museum helped me contextualize how museums work to better fulfill the needs of the public and the museum as an institution.
As a senior studying History at the University of Illinois, I wanted to engage History in a way that went outside the classroom and writing papers about things I could only connect myself to through books or libraries. Looking for such an opportunity, I gained an interest in public history and was eager to learn more about what it was. Additionally, I always wanted to get experience with museum work. The Champaign County History Museum check off both boxes for me.
In my internship at the CCHM, I was given the responsibility of curating a digital rendition of the in-person exhibit, “Zuppke en La Playa: Sketches of a Gridiron Great.” This exhibit is a showcase of the work of Robert Zuppke, University of Illinois football coach, philosopher, and painter. The exhibit at the museum addresses his accomplishments as a football coach in great detail. But it also pays special attention to sketches that he did during his time in Havana, Cuba in 1946. My goal for this project was to showcase these sketches in a clean, attractive, and easy to follow digital format utilizing the Omeka platform.
I learned a great deal during this internship. I can honestly say that the people I met at the museum and the experience I had working within the realms of public and digital history is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences I have had since coming to the University of Illinois. During the semester, i learned about Dublln Core metadata and its various elements, I mastered the Omeka platform on which I built the digital exhibit, and learned a lot about Robert Zuppke himself. Having known nothing about him going into the project, I gained a great respect for him and enjoyed reading his “Zuppkeisms.” Additionally, I got insight into what it is like to work in a museum setting by working on my own project and learning from the other interns and staff memebers who run the museum. I learned I had a great interest in this work, and I definitely would consider working in a museum again.
The challenges I encountered were easily overcome. The greatest challenge I faced was in making something that the general public would find enjoyable and nice to look at. I wanted to make sure my digital rendition did justice to Robert Zuppke’s accomplishments and compelled people to keep reading through each section. Finding that balance between readability and form was difficult, but I succeeded by simply taking a step back and asking myself, “would I even read this to the end myself?” By the time I finished my project, my answer was a resounding yes and I was very proud of the work I produced.
I see this experience relating very significantly to the broader scope of history. As we move into an increasingly digital and online world, digital history is becoming a bigger field. By exploring the possibilities of digital public history it becomes apparent that media like Omeka and even social media platforms will serve an indispensable role in history for years to come. You can reach a much bigger and broader audience digital, or you can cater to a smaller and specific audience. Because you can do either in the digital space, I think digital media will be very important in reaching the audiences public history is made for.
In Fall Semester 2021, was lucky enough to work on social media and outreach for the Champaign County History Museum. I was responsible for creating content for the museum throughout the semester on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and engage directly with the community. The museum had very little content previously, so I was trying to post consistently 4-5 times a week. I was free to design and create my own content, which was daunting at first with all the possibilities. However, I was able to research local history I was interested in and try to understand the content people enjoyed the most. It was a very interactive learning process, getting direct feedback from the public in the form of followers, likes, comments, and shares.
Sometimes I struggled with creating content that was both engaging and informative; I read The News Gazette and Smile Politely frequently to see if there were any local events that could be tied into the museum’s content. I wanted to create content that was involved with current events, but without taking away from the goal of social media: increasing awareness of the museum. This meant that all the content needed to be related to the mission of the museum, but that did not mean that I was limited to the exhibits, or even the artifacts in storage. I looked for old photographs, even contacting an archive in Nebraska for a photo to post about taffy pulls in Champaign County. I tried to work outside of the box, while also still catering to an older demographic, who value more traditional concepts of historians and museums.
Social media work is incredibly important in the current field of public history. It engages the public in an easy, informal setting and allows transparency between institutions and the communities they serve. This work is deceptively difficult and time consuming. Research and thought needs to be put into each post – and people will call you out if it doesn’t meet their standards! There is a learning curve with writing for a general audience on social media, and it changes depending on what platform is being used. It can be easy to create content that you find interesting, but if the public isn’t engaging with it, new strategies need to be adopted. I needed almost a month to find my voice for the museum that the public also liked and found engaging. I thoroughly enjoyed my work with the Champaign County History Museum, and learned many lessons during my time there.