Covering the Land of Lincoln

City planner talks future of Champaign, the rest is a thing of the past

Sydney Malone

TJ Blakeman, president of the Champaign County History Museum, browses through archival material in the Champaign County History Museum library on Oct. 19. Blakeman, along with the rest of the board, is responsible for deciding which artifacts and objects should go on display at the museum

History might not be the first thing on people’s mind when thinking about the Champaign-Urbana community, but for TJ Blakeman, local history is not only a passion, it’s a profession.

Blakeman is the president of Champaign County History Museum’s Board of Trustees. He said that he oversees the board and functions of leadership, adding that since the museum doesn’t currently have an executive director, he also helps to oversee the museum and can be found doing design work for exhibits as a chair of the exhibits committee.

He also said that his day job is not working for the museum, but as a senior city planner for the City of Champaign. He added that there is no true set day for him, either at the museum or as a city planner.

Blakeman said that he started working at the museum in 2015, right at the verge of it closing down after being in “bad shape” for a long time. A steering committee was put together to begin the options of moving forward, as well as evaluate what could be going wrong, he said.

“So it’s hard to believe it’s been seven years. But in that time, we’ve turned the museum around from days away from being closed and in a considerable amount of financial debt to the position we’re in now,” Blakeman said. “We’ve completely overhauled the museum itself into the new more modern museum that it is.”

His fascination with history, however, doesn’t start with the restoration of the museum. Blakeman said that he began appreciating history from a young age since he grew up with his four great-grandparents until he was 18 years old. He said that this unique childhood is what furthered his interest in what the past can hold.

“So you know, hearing their stories that always sparked in imagination and history, and I would spend a lot of time in our local library as a young kid, looking at photographs, scanning pictures, old photographs, helping to organize their historical collection … You know, I’ve always been interested in (it) and that love of history, and especially downtown’s (history), translated into my profession,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman graduated from the University of Illinois in 2003 with a degree in urban and regional planning, giving him the opportunity to work as a city planner for Champaign, he said. He added that he has been working as a city planner for 20 years, aiding in the efforts to rebuild downtown, Campustown and the economic development of Champaign.

“I think it’s incredibly important to understand the complex nature of the world we live in. Right? We don’t understand our own history,” Blakeman said. “We don’t understand the struggles and the successes and (we don’t) honor the people who built the stability and the institutions that we now take for granted. It was hard work. So I do think that, you know, history is not the solution. I’m very forward looking as a (city) planner. It’s my job to look forward in time and see how a community can better itself.”

He added that sometimes these solutions can be rooted in past history, making it critical for that same history to be taught to everyone in the community.

Blakeman said from a community perspective, there will have to be lots of navigation, especially as diversity begins to grow and conflicts arise as people with different histories begin living side-by-side in the CU area. Helping the community understand history better is key to the situation, he said.

The Champaign County History Museum is one way to do just that.

“We’re very optimistic about our own future, about being able to grow the organization, to grow the museum physically. We’re working on, you know, exploring what that might look like. How do we grow from the small tiny museum? We are now into what I think the community deserves, a community our size deserves,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman said he hopes people will come to see what is behind the Champaign County History Museum’s doors. He added that the museum has recently been awarded the Museum of the Year by the Illinois Association of Museums as well.

“I don’t think it’s taught enough in our schools, and so I see the museum as a way to help the community, to give the community another tool to overcome some of the lack of education that we get in other facets of our lives .”

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