Inside Out | Curating a case through the storytelling of Illini Hillel

By Chicago 5 Min Read

The Jewish organization of the University of Illinois, Illini Hillel, has been an integral part of the university since 1923.

With such a rich history, and to celebrate their 100th anniversary, the Champaign County History Museum welcomed Erez Cohen, their current executive director, as a presenter for the museum’s monthly history talk this past June.

Through conversations with Cohen and Eli Hartman-Seeskin, Hillel’s communication manager, it was decided that their story deserved more recognition.

To give a spotlight to this local organization, Cohen, Hartman-Seeskin and museum staff began their work to tell the story of Illini Hillel through a display in our lobby case, which features two to three small exhibitions each year.

The first step in curating an exhibition is deciding on its scope, its area of focus.

For an organization such as Hillel with so many important figures and events, it can be difficult to narrow down the subject matter with such limited space.

Some exhibitions have easy-to-decide focuses and themes based on a chronological timeline. However, these can lead to an uninteresting exhibition that doesn’t entice or make you think.

For Hillel celebrating such an important anniversary, what should you portray? Their early history? Their important leaders? Their tenants that have stood for a century?

One theme that continued to rise throughout our workshop discussions and was driven by the artifacts Hillel could provide for the display was pride.

Pride that the organization has lasted as long as it has. Pride that the work of their founder is still apparent in the organization today. And pride of their students who continue to lead Hillel to the future.

We decided to focus on a few key subjects: the work of their founder and early student involvement, the dedication of their first permanent building, and the work of Hillel today. Three major areas of pride for them.

From there, it’s a difficult process of cuts and edits.

There’s so much information, so many stories to tell, and so little room to tell them that we need to be concise in our storytelling.

There are many times when we are curating an exhibition that we have to leave out information that we’d prefer to keep in.

For this display, we are unable to talk about the tenets of Hillel due to limitations in space, despite the fact that for a religious organization, their tenets create a sense of community for its members.

It’s for that reason that we host receptions and have digital exhibitions where we can tell a fuller story than we ever could through labels.

At the opening reception for this display, Cohen will talk about Hillel’s tenants and their history in more detail.

Come to the museum for the opening of this lobby display Oct. 21 anytime between 5 and 8 p.m. for a reception and unveiling.

CCHM welcomes new manager

This August, the Champaign County History Museum welcomed a new museum manager.

Our previous museum manager, Connor Munson, left the organization to pursue his academic goals at graduate school, where we wish him the best of luck in his studies.

I am excited to join the museum as the acting museum manager full time, which we have not had since 2006.

I am originally from western Illinois and am a recent addition to Champaign County.

Previously, I received my graduate degree in museum studies at Western Illinois University in 2021 and worked as the assistant director of my hometown historical museum in Monmouth before moving to the local area with my wife.

At the Warren County History Museum, I curated three exhibitions and numerous events for the local community while assisting in collections management and data entry.

During my short time with the museum so far, I have dived into the history of our community and have found particular interest in local baseball history with important figures such as Dottie Schroeder and the Eastern Illinois League.

I plan to bring back many of the museum’s programs that have waned in recent years, such as the museum’s popular historic walks of downtown Champaign and Urbana, and our member open house: History on the Town through the efforts of myself and our university interns.

I hope to see you at the museum when we open new exhibitions before the end of the year!

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