Covering the Land of Lincoln

Inside Out | Breathing new life into an old device | Parks-recreation

When I started as manager of the Champaign County History Museum in January, I had a preconceived (and faulty) idea that most of what a museum does consists of preserving and cataloging artifacts. What I did not fully appreciate at the time is that the role of a museum is to help others tell their stories.

Even though I am a lifelong resident of Champaign County, each day looking through our collections is an education, and a chance to put familiar places and names into new contexts. Even things as simple as street signs and building names suddenly take on new meanings based on the lives and struggles of historic individuals.

Lately, the museum has been building on our positive momentum. April, May, and June all have had the highest records for patron interactions in 30 years. Our staff has been hard at work producing new online educational content, processing artifacts and hosting events. They are also working to implement new conservation systems that will make our collection safer and more accessible. We are nearing 3,200 entries in our open-access catalogue, giving members of the community a chance to see the artifacts and documents we hold in public trust. We have also returned to monthly history talks. From an organizational perspective, the museum is making headway on multiple fronts.

But what I keep returning to is the human stories our artifacts can tell. In May, we received a donation that I believe exemplifies how history can inspire empathy. We received a call from an Urbana man named Kevin Martindale about his desire to donate an iron lung. An accomplished electrician and handyman, Martindale had kept it in working order for decades. Through additional research, our staff realized it was the first iron lung in use at the former Burnham Hospital. Its life-saving legacy and unique provenance already made it a significant piece, but it was the human story that made it special.

Iron lungs have sometimes carried a negative stigma in public media. However, speaking with Mr. Martindale at our first meeting in his driveway, it was a deeply moving experience to learn that his late wife, Marlene (the last user of the device), considered the iron lung a “dear friend.” He told me that polio survivors who used iron lungs saw them as instruments of healing. As I watched him turn on the device and saw the lung start to rhythmically inflate and deflate for the first time in nearly 20 years, it evoked memories of the past two years and the great pandemic of our era.

I was touched by Martindale’s generosity, and by his wife’s story. Each new donation can convey a powerful narrative. Kevin’s donation offered a chance to recontextualize an important part of medical history in a positive way, and it exemplifies the small ways that museums can help patrons to repair the traumas of the past.

The Museum of the Grand Prairie, a fellow Champaign County Museum Network institution, has Marlene Martindale’s “dear friend” as part of its current special exhibit, “A History of Healing.”

Connor Monson is manager of the Champaign County History Museum. He is a 2021 graduate of the University of Illinois School of Information Science and has an undergraduate degree in US history. He also acts as a non-credit history instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Parkland College.

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