A Question of History
On display in the Marvin Foyer and Reference Hallway
at Booth Library from March 30 to July 31, 2017
On October 1, 2015, the Illinois State Museum closed its doors for nine months amidst a statewide budget crisis. This closure brought the topic of public history in Illinois to the forefront of a national conversation about the relevance of history. To raise awareness about the importance of public history, Eastern Illinois University’s 2016-2017 Historical Administration class has created an exhibit titled A Question of History: Public History in Illinois. The major themes of the exhibit trace the role of the public and the historical institutions of Illinois to show how history continues to be vital to our cultural heritage and identity.
A Question of History
A central theme of the exhibit explores the diverse applications of public history. One such method, preservation, outlines a common practice at historical sites and landmarks. An excellent example of preservation can be observed at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
During the 1987 renovation of the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, the National Park Service initiated a restoration project of the upstairs bedroom to reconstruct its original appearance. To properly reproduce the modern muddy brown and gray-blue colors, the NPS custom ordered replica-period wallpaper. Upon discovery of the wallpaper’s original vibrant colors during the renovation, however, the conservators at the Lincoln Home quickly stopped the presses. The accurate colors were printed and installed in 1988.
Locating the Past
History reaches beyond the classroom. Since the founding of Charleston almost 200 years ago, topics of local history have brought to light important people and events significant to the community’s formation. A historical marker, erected in 1935 on the edge of Charleston, memorialized the town as one of the seven locations of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. The marker reads:
“On September 18, 1858, the fourth of the famous joint debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas was held approximately one quarter-mile south of here. Twelve thousand people heard the two candidates for the United States senatorship discuss the question of slavery in American politics.”
The historical marker, and many like it found across the United States, help us to remember our past, connecting us to our shared cultural heritage.
Perceptions of the Past
Museums and other public history institutions share a long history in spreading knowledge around the world. Beginning with Wunderkammer, or “cabinets of curiosity,” these collections included a vast array of exotic specimens. These specimens included taxidermied animals, shells and geodes. The box turtle shell, featured in this section, reveals the layers of the turtle shell and helps to teach about its structural anatomy. Educational tools, like the turtle shell, highlight the didactic qualities provided by museum services. The exchange of knowledge enriches museum visitors to give rise to a more educated public.
History in the Moment
History today holds a declining position in societal priorities. State budget cuts across the nation continue to shut the doors of historical institutions — potentially forever. Nevertheless, museum attendance has steadily risen over the past several years. American museums, libraries and other public history institutions receive visitors more than 2.5 billion times each year.
The closing of the Illinois State Museum (ISM) in 2015-2016 had a statewide impact. The staff of 68 was cut to three, prompting many talented leaders in the field to leave Illinois for stable jobs. Students suffered, as almost 30,000 were denied the educational experience of the ISM. The closure also led to a decrease in tourism throughout Springfield, as well as a significant loss of revenue. Supporting historic institutions, like the ISM, ensures the preservation of stories and objects in the public trust for future generations.
Throughout history, events and specific moments in time rank on different levels of significance. Periods of celebration or remembrance, in which people honor the past and its people, tend to have a more prominent place in public memory.
Centennials provide one example of communal gatherings of states and nations to celebrate shared heritage and history. In 1918, the Illinois centennial led to celebrations across the state, including the minting of commemorative half-dollar coins. George T. Morgan and John R. Sinnock designed these silver coins as a means of observing the state centennial. Illinois’ bicentennial in 2018 affords an opportunity to reflect on Illinois’ history and its importance in understanding our shared past.
Keepers of History
Professionals in the field of public history have the job of protecting, preserving and sharing the cultural heritage and identity of the people of Illinois. When asked about his role as a public historian, Dr. Mike Wiant, director of the Illinois State Museum, said, “I think the very best way to think about this is that the objects and documents and stories are the real record; they’re the legacy of public history. For me, I have been a temporary collector, a temporary collections manager, a temporary teacher, a temporary researcher. Each one of those elements have been, hopefully, contributions to the overall body of information that will be available to people in the future. So, in the end we have this obligation to preserve the past, to articulate it as a matter of public history, but most important, to ensure that it’s there for generations in the future.”
Although professionals in the field serve as protectors to preserve cultural heritage, citizens must also actively participate toward the care and preservation of shared history. Together, professionals and individuals can ensure that future generations have the resources necessary to learn about the past, the present and themselves.
Exhibit Design Team
Eastern Illinois University’s Historical Administration M.A. program has trained emerging professionals as leaders in the field of museums and historical agencies since 1975. The program consists of an academic year on campus followed by a six-month internship. Coursework introduces students to the meaning and methods of museums, historic sites and archives, as well as the stewardship of three-dimensional artifacts and the built environment. Student-centered projects provide opportunities for students to test the theory in practical ways, including the two-semester research, design, implementation and evaluation of an exhibit at a partner institution. The class of 2017 presents the exhibition, A Question of History: Public History in Illinois, made possible with the support of EIU’s Booth Library.
Jessica Craig, curator
Claire Eagle, design/marketing
Aaron Martin, education
Sara Mercado, curator
Hailey Paige, curator
Elizabeth Papp, education
Meagan Patterson, design/marketing
Amanda Roberts, registrar
Brock Stafford, design/marketing
Cayla Wagner, registrar