It was a blisteringly cold morning as I made my way over to the Warren County Historical Museum (WCHM) in Monmouth, Illinois. The moment I opened the door, I was warmly greeted by Carol Parrish, a woman who I would learn was very passionate about her job as curator at the museum. This interview kept me on my feet, as whenever Parrish had an idea, she would lead me exactly to the place in the museum that applied to her message.
This was a large museum full of artifacts exclusively from Warren County and surrounding areas. One room was dedicated to household objects; another was full of tractors and other farming tools. By the time I left, there were still rooms that I had yet to explore. However, one grief that Parrish expressed was that it did not have everything that she wished it could. Some artifacts were too big to feasibly bring to the WCHM or had personal connections to those who owned them. Others were considered too valuable by their owners to leave in a museum, or were not often displayed to anyone due to their rarity. Parrish wished for a tool that would connect all of these scattered items to one place, so that the community could see their entire history, not only the few bits that were currently on display at the WCHM.
The Warren County Virtual Museum project was created to help realize Parrish's goal. It was funded by an Illinois Broadband Grant. Its partners include Monmouth College, the City of Monmouth, the Warrior County Historical Museum (WCHM), and Warren County Public Library and the Buchanan Center for the Arts. It is meant to serve as both an educational and practical tool the help achieve Parrish's goal of connecting the community's history into one easily-accessible place.
Educationally, it is a collection of information from the museum that anyone can view from anywhere. If the artifacts are not available in the museum itself, there are ways to find them though the website.
The WCHM also uses the Virtual Museum as a catalog, which helps users navigate the museum and the local historical society keep track of its inventory. Before the Virtual Museum, the way Parrish catalogued the inventory was greatly outdated. All of the artifacts were listed on an ancient excel sheet that was accessible to only one computer that did not have internet access - an artifact in its own right! Now, with the catalog embedded in the back end of the Virtual Museum, all that Parrish needs to find is just a click away on any computer.
Exhibits within the Virtual Museum were created in part with the help of some Monmouth College students, and I was given the opportunity to talk to three of them, Ashley Atwell, Kelsey Barnes and Jillian Casey. They were assigned the job of creating digital exhibits for a Citizenship class (one of four integrated studies courses required at Monmouth College). The assignment was to create an exhibit with artifacts from around the time of Wyatt Earp, a Monmouth local. Barnes and Casey chose to create a timeline for a cannon donated to Monmouth College from 1903. Atwell did her project on kitchen utensils, which were available through the WCHM.
According to Barnes, this project "... involved gathering information from both the Monmouth College archives and interviews by members in the Monmouth College community. Each webpage in the exhibit we created contained an artifact, an artifact description, objects, and object descriptions." Atwell, Barnes and Casey all were assigned different parts of this task in their respective groups.
There were many challenges to this process. Because the software on the website was new, it was very buggy at times. The three were not completely familiar with the system and sometimes the formatting did not match with what they had in mind. However, despite the difficulties they encountered, they managed to create some beautiful and informational online exhibits.
All three of the students said that they benefited a lot from what they went through during this project. They said that they have developed a new "patience for technology," better team working skills and felt more a part of Monmouth as a citizen. Atwell noted: "I believe that the project was more than valuable for my learning in that specific class. I think that this project allowed us to expand our critical thinking skills, problem solving, flexibility, cooperative learning skills, leadership skills, communication skills, and more."
Parrish's goal of sharing Warren County's history is finally being reached through the virtual museum. New and diverse audiences that would not have known about the WCHM, including Monmouth College students, are more likely than ever to visit to local museum because of the virtual museum. However, if it was a miserably cold day like it was for me, the WCVM would always be there to give them the information that they need - without the risk of frostbite!
Go visit the Warren County Virtual Museum today!