This is the latest entry in our Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work. In this post, Tiffany Warmowski, the Chair of the History and Museum Committee with the MacMurray Foundation & Alumni Association discusses the MacMurray Archives and its new home at the Jacksonville Area Museum. MacMurray College located in Jacksonville, Illinois closed in March of 2020.
AP: Can you provide a brief history of the MacMurray College Archives, its connection with the Jacksonville Area Museum and your role as Chair of the Committee?
TW: The MacMurray College board of trustees announced the closure of the 174-year-old institution in March 2020. Within a month, a few trustees began the paperwork to form a foundation with three goals: provide scholarships, continue to engage Alumni relations and preserve the history of the college.
When I was asked in late spring 2020 to volunteer on the foundation board, I asked to help with the archives. I was one of the only local-to-Jacksonville people on the board, so they were happy to agree to that. In addition to the processed archives of the college, many staff members, while cleaning out their offices, brought items to the basement of the library to be added to the archives, even though there was no longer an archivist. I entered the scene and was met with file cabinets, boxes and spreadsheets of processed archives, and a large collection of documents and artifacts that were not yet processed (and are still not yet processed). In October of 2020, all of that was moved to the Jacksonville Area Museum, which hadn’t opened to the public yet, after an agreement was signed between the City (the museum is a city entity) and the MacMurray Foundation. The museum opened September 2021.
Before the archives were moved, I went building-to-building with another volunteer and looked for items that we felt should be added to the MacMurray Collection. We found student records from approx. 1900-1968. I quickly learned these files are federally protected. The foundation contacted the Illinois State Archives and learned best practices to protect the academic, medical and other sensitive information in these files. With the blessing of an Institutional Review Board at Illinois College, these student files are being studied by a sociology class, following best practices for protecting PII.
Besides the student records, there are board of trustee minutes going back to the very first meeting that established the college, committee meeting minutes for dozens of faculties, student and other committees, department self-studies, the entire public relations archives (press releases, photo prints, slides, negatives), yearbooks, archives specific to each college president, several college professors and scrapbooks for dozens of student organizations as well as personal student scrapbooks.
In addition, there is a Lincoln Collection of over 400 books, dozens of magazines and pamphlets, statues, framed art and other Lincoln-related items. This entire collection was donated by Rev. Lester Schriver (a college trustee) in the early 1940s.
AP: You mentioned that you weren’t originally asked to work with the archives. What prompted you to work with them?
TW: I wasn’t remotely interested in the history of MacMurray College when I was a student there from 1994 to 1998. But through the lens of its closing and the possibility of losing these amazing buildings, I realized how very interested I was. I had the opportunity to be on the board and I joined to preserve the history because there were some pretty neat things in the archives that I just didn’t want to go away.
AP: Who have you turned to for assistance?
TW: I don’t have a public history, archiving or curating background, but I do know people that have those things. One of my mentors, Dr. Claire Jerry, was a professor at MacMurray. She taught our humanities classes, and she became a good friend of mine. Now she works at the Smithsonian in DC. She has been a great resource for us.
Additionally, Samantha Sauer, the archivist and curator for Illinois College just down the street from MacMurray College, has been an amazing resource. Her student, McKenna Servis, was the Museum intern last summer and now she is the museum’s part-time manager. She’s really taught me how to discern what’s important and how to tell stories.
AP: What have been some of the challenges/barriers the project has faced?
TW: The museum is in a former Post Office that was built about 1900. Except for our most valuable and fragile items, the bulk of the archives are housed in a basement and a large main-floor room, and neither are climate controlled (although they are dry.) It’s difficult to work there right now because it’s very cold. We do most of our work in the temperature-controlled areas of the museum, but that limits what we can do because what needs to be done right now is organizing and moving and boxing things and that can only be done in the large, cold rooms. We face the challenge of not having an archivist on staff. The museum has a part-time museum manager. That person is tasked with running the museum and spending 1/2 of her time on MacMurray-related work, since the salary is split between the two organizations. We also need additional archival boxes and other materials needed to maintain the collection.
Additionally, I think this town is good at volunteering, and we have a lot of opportunities for volunteerism in our town. To be asking for yet another way for people to volunteer, I feel like people are already kind of stretched thin, especially right now.
AP: How has the Jacksonville community responded to the MacMurray College archives finding a new home?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are very glad to know the history of the college is being preserved. There has been a lot of sadness and grieving for those related to the college and I believe the knowledge that not everything is lost is helpful for them.
AP: What is the most interesting part of the archival collection you have worked with?
TW: I mentioned the student records, which are protected because of the information that’s in them. We discovered from these records that MacMurray was part of a federal program that educated Japanese women who were either incarcerated during the Japanese internment tragedy or were headed there. We don’t know exactly which Japanese students came through the program or who just came at the same time during World War II, but we have some records from students who are in that program. There was a woman who entered the internment camp in Idaho with her family, and she was able to come to MacMurray to finish her education. I know that she’s not the only one, and I was happy to see that MacMurray was a shining light at that time. There’s also an article in the local newspaper about a Japanese student and a Chinese student who were roommates at MacMurray during World War II. Their countries were adversaries during the war and they got along and were able to have a peaceful friendship on campus that was recognized by the local paper and by the community.
AP: What are the plans for the MacMurray College archives after the 10 year agreement ends?
TW: I believe the plan currently is to evaluate things when the time gets closer and to perhaps do another 10 years or something longer. I would also love to find some grants for hiring somebody to digitize what we have to make it digitally available. McKenna and the volunteers are where we have to start for right now and although we don’t have a plan for getting an archivist, I absolutely see the need for one.
For now, the Museum has a MacMurray Hall that’s dedicated to the college which is full of exhibits. We’re having a gathering in lieu of what people would call homecoming this June. The people that are going to be visiting the Museum are going to be people from the 1970s through the 1990s and I would really like to have some exhibits specifically for them to see. Right now, we have the history of the College starting in 1846 until about 1975 and we have a lot of artifacts mostly from the early 1900’s. I’d like to have more current, relatable exhibits.
AP: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
TW: The MacMurray foundation is really grateful for our partnership with the city and the Jacksonville Area Museum. The Jacksonville Area Museum board has been very supportive of MacMurray and the physical space that they’ve given us. We’ve kind of taken over and we’re just grateful for the support of both the MacMurray community and the broader Jacksonville community.
Sometimes I look at these old pictures and read the histories of the Presidents and their wives who gave every ounce of energy and money that they had to help this College succeed. I feel like we failed them sometimes, but also this is just a natural progression of life. Things start, things are great, things are hard, and then things end sometimes. I’m trying to remember that their efforts weren’t in vain because they educated thousands of women first and then people, including me. I know a lot of people are much better off because of MacMurray.