On Feb. 1, we said farewell to our director, Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey. After 22 years of service to the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Barb retired. Barb served as curator, assistant director and, for the last 10 years, director for the Museum and Education Department (including the Museum of the Grand Prairie and the Homer Lake Interpretive Center). Before her time with us officially ended, I had a chance to sit down with her for an interview and reflect on many wonderful memories during her tenure.
Why work in the museums world? What motivated you to join this career field and sustain a long career within it?We tell stories. I think everybody’s life matters, and the stories that people tell about themselves, their families and the people they love matter. Those stories can help us understand ourselves and the world at large better if we listen very carefully. Telling those stories through pictures and artifacts gives them dimension and depth. People have done hard and amazing things so that we can have what we have. I am humbled by that. Also, I have always been astounded and amazed by nature. From when I had turtles when I was 5 years old to doing the frog call survey at 60 years old, nature has amazed me, and I want people to feel that sense of wonder, too.
Do you have a particular exhibit or project that was your favorite to work on?The disease exhibit we have now (Museum of the Grand Prairie’s “A History of Healing” exhibit) is really, really close to my heart because it crystallizes the notion that if we work together as a community, we can be better as a community. In the case of disease, we keep other people from being sick, and I think those messages resonate so well today. Plus, my parents were scientists, so I feel like I did it for them.
When you look back on your career and the memories you have working here, what feelings and emotions come to mind?Ninety-nine percent of the people who work at the forest preserve district are here for the mission. Of course they like to get paid, but they’re here for more than that. (Other workers here) want people to experience the joy of learning something new or appreciating natural beauty or having fun. And knowing that you’re serving the people of Champaign County at the same time, that’s the greatest.
Is there a particular project or idea that you wish you had a chance to explore more?I’d love to investigate the myriad ways that alcohol has influenced American politics, even local politics. It was used as a bludgeon against immigrants and employed by the suffragists as a way to get votes from pro-temperance people. The 18th Amendment was the only amendment to ever get repealed, and for good reason. (Alcohol) still causes us so many problems, and yet it is still so widely enjoyed.
For any young professionals in this field, what sort of advice would you offer?Keep tryin’. I didn’t start working full time in a museum until I was 44, and that was here. I worked at Krannert Art Museum and World Heritage Museum (now known as Spurlock Museum) part time before that. I think it made a difference that I volunteered here. Museums and forest preserves always love volunteers, and if you can’t make a living doing it, you can do something powerful, important, useful and fun for you if you just ask if you can help. And it might be a foot in the door.
Any other parting words?I have had an amazing staff. There’s been some great leadership at the forest preserve district. I love the public we have served. No one does anything by themselves. I am grateful to all the people who have helped along the way.
Barb will be deeply missed, and we wish her all the best in her retirement. She shared that she will spend a great deal of time traveling and visiting with her beautiful children and grandchildren.
Barb’s passion and care for her work, as well as those around her, will be hard to replace. However, we will do our best to emulate her passion and care in all the work we do. In Barb’s words, we will just keep tryin’.