When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, most people expected the self-isolation period to only last a few weeks. After that initial period and the realization that this would not be over quickly, I began to panic at the realization that I might not be able to have an internship the summer before my senior year of college. Cancellations of internship programs I’d applied to began to roll into my email inbox. Luckily, what also arrived in my inbox was a newsletter advertising that the Illinois Distributed Museum was seeking interns. I reached out and to my delight, I was accepted. Not only that, I was able to do the internship digitally, meaning the upmost possible safety for me and the family members I was living with. It was the ideal scenario given the unfortunate situation. I would get to have an internship after all, and it would be in public history and museum work like I’d hoped.
The Illinois Distributed Museum is an online resource for self-guided tours on the history of the University of Illinois. As an intern for IDM, I was responsible for writing and researching some of these tour stops, including a short history and description of the stop and its history at the university, the physical location it would be associated with, and a corresponding picture related to the history discussed. I began the internship by choosing a topic. I chose to focus on the university’s history of disability advocacy and the achievements of disabled students. It was a new topic for me and as a result I learned so much about disability activism, both at the university and at large. Then, I was given a topic for each tour stop I was assigned, paced at one stop per week over the course of the summer. This meant that as long as I was able to meet the expected deadlines, I would have the freedom to choose when I would do my work. Conversely, this also meant that I was accountable for setting a schedule for myself and sticking to it. As a result, I strengthened my work ethic and improved my ability to keep a work schedule. Researching university-specific topics also led me to utilize databases that I had not yet used, occasionally running into roadblocks when certain archives were not yet digitized. This definitely taught me to approach research in a new way and to develop creative solutions to problems. Additionally, IDM’s function as a public museum required me to adjust my writing style to be accessible to everyone. It allowed me to reflect on my communication style and make sure that the way I convey information is effective.
Overall, interning with the Illinois Distributed Museum was an absolutely fantastic opportunity that I am so grateful for. It has strengthened my skills as a history student and given me a newfound appreciation for the university I attend. The structure of a physical tour helped me to connect the history I was learning to the physical world around me. It pushed me to improve my communication and organization skills. Most of all, it reminded me why history is so important and why I chose to study it in the first place.