We’re ramping up the pace on our Public History Interns Blog series in order to have all the graduating seniors who have contributed to this series represented as we approach what should have been their graduation weekend. There are two new blogs today and will be two more tomorrow. Some additional seniors did internships under extraordinary circumstances this term, and we’ll be featuring all of their posts in coming weeks and months, and congratulating them tomorrow! It’s been great to get to know them all and see their interests in public history unfold!
“Letting the light into the archives vaults”
I’ve always had an interest in history – that only grew stronger when I entered the University of Illinois as a history major. Events from the past can be accessed here in the present through books and photographs, and authors do an excellent job of interpreting past events or painting so vivid a picture of them that modern readers can imagine they are there. However, being able to actually handle historical items – documents, artifacts, and even the aging buildings that populate our campus – is far better than reading about them in an abstract way.
So when I needed an on-campus job, I was excited to apply to work at the University of Illinois archives, and thrilled when I was offered the position. I’ve now worked there for three years, and the things that my job has helped me accomplish and experience are too many to count. I’ve learned so much about the history of the campus of the University, and also about the students who have gone here. Additionally, it lead me to two internships, at the National Archives at Chicago and the Chicago Public Library Special Collections and Preservation Division. While working at the two of those, I’ve handled items signed by presidents and a piece of a bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg.
But this is because I worked there. Anyone from the general public would have to know exactly what they were looking for to see such things. They’d also have to know that they exist at all – before I started working at the archives, I had no idea that one could simply request to see historical materials for free. Archivists can’t wait for the public to come to them; rather, they need to, without a particular occasion or motive, make historical items available to the public in an easily visible place. People might not know that they want to see old documents until they are actually in front of them. That way, we can shed some light into the closed vaults of the archives and let the people see the things that we’re keeping safe for the future.
Museums exist to serve the public and they do so in a variety of ways, but how do museums that are not necessarily “children’s museums” serve youth aside from school tours? In the case of Naper Settlement, programs range from summer camps to volunteer programs that appeal to families and younger audiences.
During Summer 2019, I was a building interpreter intern at the Naper Settlement Museum. The main thing I did at Naper Settlement was create lesson plans for summer camps. Every week we would have one to two camps going on with a different theme. The camps were about six hours and ran Monday through Friday. The camps I planned ranged from “Passport to the World,” Extreme Animals” and “Mad Science.” I also got to help with pre-existing camps like our Civil War Camp and Throwback Camp where we taught campers how to tie dye and use a rotary phone.
We also had several anniversaries at Naper Settlement over the summer that we celebrated with the community. This past July marked the fiftieth year that we have had our chapel at the museum so we invited all of the couples who have gotten married there to come and participate in a group vow renewal with their families. That was also the same day we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing so we had a mini rocket launch and created moon themed activities for the younger guests that day.
Naper Nights is another event that I got to be a part of. Naper Nights is a concert series that takes place on the museum lawn. Every Naper Nights had a historical theme. These themes included the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and the 50th anniversary of the weed ladies, a group of historical society volunteers. I worked three of these events and each one had activities to accommodate children. Chuck E. Cheese was one of our sponsors and they provided games for the children to play. The museum itself also provided “retro” games like rock em sock em robots and rubix cubes. There were two other local businesses also in attendance: Pinot’s Palette who provided paints and canvases and Players Indoor Sports Center who brought in equipment for guests to play gaga ball. All of these activities were free for people to participate in.
I also got to work with our Junior Volunteers. These volunteers wear period clothing and show museum visitors pioneer era games. They also attend a classroom lesson in our school house. Once junior volunteers age out of the program they are also welcome to become interpreter volunteers, where they can work in one of our many buildings.
Naper Settlement is also unique because it is a primarily outdoor museum that revolves around interpretation. This makes it easier for the material being presented to be adapted to best suit the visitor. Children are able to ask questions as the information is being presented to them, whereas in more traditional museums, when they are shown a label or artifact and they do not fully comprehend what they are being shown, they are more likely to simply move on without gaining and sort of understanding on what is being exhibited. We also had different activities and information we had prepared for different age groups. For example, when I interpreted in our print shop, I had stamp sets so younger kids could be printers.
Because museums are often perceived as places that are full of fragile objects and demand silence, they do not appear to welcome younger audiences, unless they are children’s museums. However, Naper Settlement is one of many museums that serve the community and this includes children. Through their many summer camp programs, special events, volunteer program, and accommodating interpretation style, Naper Settlement offers many ways for the younger members of the community to be involved with the museum despite not being a formal children’s museum.
In our fourth Public History Blog, History Department Senior Thomas Weller describes some of the Champaign Urbana History he found during his Fall 2019 internship at the Champaign County Historical Museum.
On the second floor of the Champaign County Historical Museum, there is the research library. The room is small but it feels homely instead of cramped. The first thing that greets you when you walk into the room is the smell of old paper. Aged books fill all of the shelves, waiting to be read. The library not only contains books but also has, among other things, a filing cabinet filled with manilla folders labeled with titles such as “Krannert Center” or “Savoy, IL”. Each folder is full of papers such as newspaper clippings, maps, and brochures about the corresponding place, person or organization.
Unfortunately these folders have gotten mixed up over the years and it was the job of the interns to sort them out. I had a master list of every single file that was supposed to be in the cabinet and I had to go through each folder, taking out things that didn’t belong and noting on the list what sorts of things were inside. This may sound rather tedious but actually it was a great opportunity to look at different aspects of Champaign County’s history. I found a lot of interesting things in there, one of which I am going to share with you all today.
I found a folder simply titled “Popcorn Wagon”, which piqued my curiosity. Inside there were several newspaper articles about a man named Henry Sansone and his popcorn truck which he operated for over 50 years. Looking up Sansone and the popcorn wagon online yielded few results other than one article by the Champaign County Historical Museum itself. Thus, the only information I had to work with about this man and his wagon were the materials in the folder. Piecing together his story became a sort of puzzle, which is part of the fun of archivist work anyway.
The first newspaper article was from January 24, 1954 and it set up a clash betweenSansone and the Champaign city authorities. The city had passed an ordinance outlawing the sale of merchandise from vehicles parked on the streets. It wasn’t drafted to specifically harm Sansone but his popcorn wagon fell under the ordinence’s requirements. Notice was given to Sansone to cease his sale of popcorn.
The magic of archives allows us to become time travelers, so I was able to skip ahead to the next article from February 17th. Here, Sansone stated that he was temporarily out of business and was looking for a new place to sell his popcorn. Evidently, he didn’t find such a place because on February 23rd he tried to sell his popcorn and was arrested by Champaign police. Sansone indicated at the end of the article that he was planning on getting an attorney and contesting the case. The very next day, he was arrested again for selling popcorn on the street and the case went to trial.
On March 4, 1954, the paper reported that after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury was divided five to one for Sansone’s acquittal. The judge ruled that a hung jury was equal to an acquittal, leading to Sansone’s release from his charges. Victorious, Sansone resumed his business as usual.
The story then jumped to October 12, 1974 when it was announced that after 57 years of popping, Sansone was ready to sell his popcorn truck and retire. In reflecting on his half-century long career, two historic dates stood out in his mind. “One was a 1939 sale of a bag of popcorn to the late great Cardinal baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean. The other was a 1954 court fight to continue selling popcorn in downtown Champaign.” The article also gave a quick recap not only of the court fight but also of Sansone’s origins. He started his business in 1924, operating from a pushcart. He purchased his famous popcorn truck from his brother in 1935. He died two years after the story about his retirement, in 1976.
Looking at the story of Henry Sansone allows us to ask questions about the importance of local community archives, like the one in the Champaign County Historical Museum. Henry Sansone obviously was well-loved back in his day. And yet, I had never heard of him and I would be surprised if any of you had heard of him either.
His significance comes from his importance to the local community. He is no longer a part of the current culture of Champaign but has instead faded into history. Now his story remains in a manilla folder, one out of hundreds, in a cabinet in a small library. Being just a single story out of hundreds, I doubt that many people have looked through his manilla folder besides myself and other museum staff. This could lead some people to question the purpose of it all. Why keep so much old material if most of it is almost never read?
However, I disagree with this sentiment. Discovering Sansone’s story allows us to immerse ourselves in the experiences of the past. If these documents had not been stored, then Sansone’s story may have been lost forever. At the very least, the documents allowed me to share the tale of Sansone’s popcorn wagon, and the joy it brought to so many people. A little bit of Champaign’s history has been brought back into living memory, if only for a little while.
As a lover of history, I have always appreciated what museums do for the public and have always had a desire to work for one some day, I just never knew if such an opportunity would arise. Luckily, when I was picking out my classes for the Fall 2019 school year, I stumbled across this incredible opportunity to intern at a museum, and achieve college credit at the same time!
Flash forward to December 2019, and I was wrapping up an internship at the Champaign County History Museum, a small organization dedicated to preserving local history in the county. I was part of a team of two other student interns who were in the same program. Together, our responsibilities varied but essentially we were a big part of the museum’s day to day proceedings, such as working the front desk, opening and closing the museum, and keeping the building clean. In addition, the interns served as an aid to the museum board for their long term projects, such as public outreach and dealing with exhibits.
During my time at this museum, I learned a great deal, not only about local history, but about the purpose of public history, especially in a local context. In my experiences at the museum, I have witnessed many guests with deep personal connections with the county coming in looking for information about a topic that pertains to them, and it is always a pleasure to assist them. I have also made personal connections with some of the museum’s board members and volunteers, many of them are experts on the county history and hearing their own personal stories has been an experience I will not soon forget.
My personal favorite project that I was a part of at this museum was when we transitioned an entire new exhibit room. During this process the museum had to close down in order to get the work done. My favorite part was seeing all the volunteers and board members come together to complete this task. Over a two week span, together we =tore down the current exhibit, one that was dedicated to the University of Illinois’ 150 year anniversary. This exhibit had a lot of important artifacts so we had to make sure to carefully store them so they could keep their historical value. Then, we took the empty room and transformed it into an exhibit about the 1929 Harris Mansion Heist, Champaign County’s first high profile crime. Myself and the other interns helped in various ways throughout this process. Most of our tasks included painting walls, sanding platforms, and bringing artifacts to and from the museum’s storage unit. I enjoyed this experience the most because of the objects I processed as well as the people I got to work with.
The pictures shown here are from the completed stage of the new Harris Mansion exhibit. Some of the key items include the guns used in the heist and a game used football from the game that occurred on the same day.
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.
Welcome to the first in a series of blogposts by participants in our Internship in Public History program! Ten students who served as volunteers in public history during Summer or Fall of 2019 earned credit for their internship experiences by participating in a workshop featuring readings, blog writing and a panel presentation on their experiences. In the first of our blog series, Jensen Rehn describes her motivation for and experience as an intern at the Abraham Lincoln Lincoln Presidential Library during the summer.
History has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I gravitated towards my grandparents at family gatherings to hear stories from their childhoods.
In fact, on a shelf in my apartment, I still have a floral print notebook from 2010 where I wrote down stories my PapPap and Grandpa Rehn told me about growing up during the Second World War.
When I applied for a research and collections internship at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, I anticipated focusing on the nineteenth century. However, during my first few days in Springfield, I helped install “In This Great Struggle: The Greatest Generation Remembers WWII.” Rather than focusing on famous figures, this exhibit revolved around everyday experiences during the 1940s. Seeing correspondence between a young soldier and his wife reminded me of letters my PapPap received from his older brother who served in Europe.
Although most people associate the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum with the sixteenth president, “In This Great Struggle” highlighted other strengths of the collection. Building upon a sizable amount of 1940s propaganda posters, the exhibit took on a life of its own once oral history interviews recorded with Dr. Mark DePue entered the equation. Visitors to the finished exhibit could watch oral history interviews with individuals who lived through World War Two and whose items filled many of the gallery’s cases.
In order to prepare for opening day on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, the museum’s registrar and exhibit designers taught me about exhibit installation through participation. I helped photograph items we received on loan from other institutions, vacuum sealed labels, and even spent an afternoon positioning items in the “Communication” and “Sweethearts” cases. The exhibit included amazing artifacts such as a still functioning 1942 U.S. Army motorcycle, Kenneth Hagan’s forged French identity papers, and a commemorative collar for Duke, a dog who died on Iwo Jima. However, I loved the sound booth in the back of the gallery where visitors could record their own memories. This area exemplified the exhibit’s intention to expand the experiences included in the story of World War Two.
Later on in the summer, I helped plan an exhibit about the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Whereas working on “In This Great Struggle” exposed me to the final stages of exhibit installation, I got to help brainstorm the design and layout of the Stowe display. Researching Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup and southern pro-slavery reactions fulfilled my expectations for the type of research my internship would entail. Nonetheless, I am thankful for the unexpected opportunity to reconnect with the type of stories that initially ignited my passion for the past by helping with “In This Great Struggle.”
Come to the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections Open House Wed. Oct. 30 3-5 PM and see what great materials they have!
Here’s another course of possible interest to students interest in public history and its digital history cousins: this course teaches skills in editing digital documents and considering how media, past and present, becomes history.