Reminiscing with a Museum Professional

I spoke briefly with Heather, the collections manager at the Joliet Area Historical Museum (JAHM), a small museum near my hometown. I’d worked under her for two years as an undergrad, so I used this discussion as a means to catch up with her, as well as discuss the current state of the museum/ collection.

Because no conversation with a former co-worker is complete without reminiscing about the good ol’ days, I started by asking about the status of events that had been going on while I was employed there in 2011. I was pleased to hear that the museum was still putting on the outdoor rooftop concert series that had been in full swing several years ago. The museum has s fantastic outdoor rooftop, and because the weather in the Midwest is the way it is, the rooftop space is only allowed to shine for a very brief period of time. The rooftop concert series is always a very successful event- it caters to a variety of people and acts as one of the greatest annual fundraisers for the museum. I always loved seeing the mix of younger people and older people there. It’s tough to create an event that appeals to several demographics, and in my experience, the presence of live music and rooftop anything usually seals the deal. Wherever I am employed in the future, I hope to be involved with the organization’s party-planning committee, and I will work tirelessly to include live music.

Today, JAHM has significantly more events annual events than they did several years ago. Heather and I discussed some changes the museum had experienced recently. Within the past several years, museum leadership has changed significantly, and I think the updated events schedule and evolution of leadership are directly correlated. From my perspective, these newer events appear to be much more interactive. Previously, the tone of events was very “Come view our new exhibit and eat some tiny sub sandwiches!!” but now, it’s more “Come view our new exhibit and enjoy several other activities that underscore the importance of the public’s engagement and interaction with history in museum work and also enjoy a much larger buffet with a variety of appetizers!!” I got up on my public history soapbox and chattered on about shared authority for a bit, Michael Frisch would have been amused (and hopefully, a little proud). It was really nice to hear that their programming has grown over time.

JAHM gave me my first museum job. I loved it, but not for the reasons I thought I would. I was taken on as assistant to the collections manager, and I was looking forward to locking myself away in the archives with the collection and some peace and quiet. Being alone and letting other people deal with “the public” seemed attractive to me at the time, but I realized after a few weeks that seclusion wasn’t for me. I still love archival work and the thought of processing a box of old campaign buttons still lights my fire, but working at JAHM made me realize that I want more than that. I saw Heather, the collections manager, working closely with the events planner, and the events planner working closely with the education director, and on into infinity. Everyone at JAHM worked together, in every sense of the word. The curator wasn’t just the curator, but stepped in and out of a variety of roles from exhibit planning to public relations to collections management. A public historian has a similar set of skills, and the variety of options that exist in this niche is what drew me in. I want to do it all.

The conversation Heather and I had was brief, but chatting with her always leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy. I meant to explain the purpose of this blog post to her and have an actual conversation about the complexities of her job, but we got off topic and I suppose I cheated because I’m already familiar with the complexities of her job. The complexities of her job are just as intriguing to me now as they were five years ago when she was my mentor. As many of the readings over the past two semesters have emphasized, the wrong ways to approach public history are pretty obvious, but the correct approaches are more elusive and very trial and error- the way a public historian approaches a task is dependent on a variety of factors. I’m so grateful that Heather allowed me to step into a variety of roles and experiment while I was at JAHM- these experiences are a huge part of why I am where I am today.

Author’s note: I apologize for turning this into an overly emotional #throwbackthursday- esque post. That wasn’t my intention-but it’s too late to turn back now.

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