We at Illinois Humanities recently announced the selection of six small-town organizations to host the newest Museum on Main Street exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution, Voices and Votes: Democracy in America, during its 2021-22 Illinois tour. Although the news was cause for celebration, it arrived in the midst of challenges and anxieties resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. The institutions that will host Voices and Votes are experiencing and responding to the uncertainties of this time in a variety of ways.
The Madison County Historical Society has been using its Facebook page to share photographs, videos, and information about many aspects of the county’s history, including residents’ responses to previous public health crises. The society is concerned, however, that one of its ongoing long-term projects – a major renovation of the 184-year-old Weir House in Edwardsville, in which its museum is located – might become even longer-term. The renovation has been under way for months, and the society has expected it to be completed in the first half of 2021, but fundraising has slowed in recent weeks.
“Potential donors appear to be concerned primarily about their own personal sustainability during such trying times,” observed Jon Parkin, superintendent of the museum. Parkin also noted that the staff and board of the Madison County Historical Society are understandably concerned about the potential repercussions of an economic downturn.
“All of the professional staff are paid employees of the local county government. If times begin to get desperate, it may become increasingly difficult for elected officials to justify supporting the museum, which many see as a luxury and not an essential institution,” he explained.
Parkin continued, “I would respectfully suggest, though, that we actually are fulfilling an essential role by collecting artifacts and personal narratives to document Madison countians’ experiences of this pandemic. Who else would meet that responsibility if we weren’t able to do so?”
The Savanna Museum and Cultural Center also has had to postpone improvements to its building. “We are in the process of remodeling the south half of our center. Our contractor has decided to delay work on the remodeling until after the governor removes the Covid-19 restrictions,” said Jean Ferris, the organization’s events chairperson.
The Savanna Museum and Cultural Center has canceled all of its previously scheduled events but is working to reschedule them. It canceled its most recent board meeting, as well, but plans to conduct business online in the coming weeks. “Our board meetings are going to continue with Zoom meetings, using ‘video and audio’ for those comfortable with that technology and ‘audio only’ for those that are comfortable with their telephone keypad,” explained John LeComte, president of the organization.
One of the center’s major projects is proceeding with help from communications technology, as well. “We are currently developing an exhibit for Savanna native Helen Scott Hay, who was a nursing educator, hospital administrator, author, and lecturer, who later in her career became the head of American operations of the American Red Cross in Europe following World War I,” Ferris commented. “The development of this project is continuing through the sharing of e-mails, text messages, and video conferencing.”
Similarly, the work of Vespasian Warner Public Library in Clinton goes on even though the building is closed. “While library staff wish things could get back to normal, they are seizing the opportunity to be a pillar of support within the community during this time,” according to Samantha Rusk, the library’s business manager.
“We continually add free digital resources and services to our existing collection. Some of those services include access to e-books, audiobooks, 24/7 wi-fi, virtual story times, Ancestry.com, local digital history archives, and databases,” Rusk noted. She added, “Residents who do not currently have library cards are eligible to receive temporary cards so they can access the entire digital library collection. Many other libraries in the state and country are also working to provide remote services, so everyone is encouraged to connect virtually with their own community libraries.”
Another such institution is the Bryan-Bennett Library in Salem, which stays connected to its patrons through its website and Facebook page. “Social distancing’ is a little contrary to the nature of small-town USA, where we normally start conversations with anyone, regardless of whether we know them – but we’re catching on,” commented Kim Keller, director of the library. “Most of us in this area are using the downtime to catch up on yard work and projects around our homes.”
“Our prayers are that there will be a speedy end to this virus and that the actual numbers of infected will fall far short of the projected statistics,” she added.