Public History Intern Blog #2: Evan Nielson

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.IMG_6505Growing 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. 

ElginHistoryMuseumFrankly, 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, elgin-watchesI 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, 4138-ImageLarge-Elgin-History-Museum-2and 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.

Introducing: Public History Intern Blog

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.

Jensen and Grandpa Memorial StadiumHistory 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. 

Jensen and PapPap 1In 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.Rehn, Jensen (ALPLM)

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.”