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Carol Summerfield - History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff

Carol Summerfield History Center

Carol Summerfield
Executive Director
History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff
509 E Deerpath, LF


Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Chamber of Commerce: What was the inspiration behind the History Center’s new location. What was your inspiration for getting involved with the History Center?
Carol Summerfield: The previous building that housed the then ‘Historical Society’ on Westminster was not accessible. To repair it and add additions was just too costly. When this space became available it seemed perfect, because it is entirely wheelchair accessible--there are no stairs coming in from the parking lot; it's an open space--you can put about 100 people in here for a lecture; and there was an opportunity to create a special exhibit room. It checked all the boxes. Plus, as a History Center, adaptive reuse is a really important part of what we look at. So, we wanted to avoid knocking something down and building something new. We’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback on how the space has been adapted for the museum.


At the same time as the move, we changed from being a Historical Society based on programs and public lectures, to an actual destination and museum…a welcoming center for the community at large, and particularly for new residents and visitors, to give them a starting point into the community they are entering in to.


I ran my own company that did exhibit design and museum strategy. I was hired by the History Center to help with the installation and to strategize: What are the stories to tell? What's the big picture that we want to accomplish as a History Center? The focus is not only telling the history of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, but how those stores were emblematic of a larger story. What makes people come here and what keeps them here? How do you maintain a thriving and vibrant community over time? The ability to do a compare and contrast with how Lake Bluff has done it and how Lake Forest has done it is a really great way for us to frame it. Anyone coming in--students, public visitors--start to get a sense of that. It allows them to put those filters on their community and look at issues through an historical lens.


LFLBC: What is the one thing you want people to know about the History Center?

CS: We’re not only backwards looking. In the next two weeks we're installing an oral recording booth so that we can get oral histories from people. This is partly because we want to be able to capture stories from previous decades. But we also want young people to come in and tell their stories today. Fifty years from now people are going to want to know the details of daily life. For a lot of those sorts of things, we don't have the tools we would have had in the past… people don't keep diaries, they don't write letters, etc.  We don't have those tools. We’ve got plenty of photos from Instagram, but we don't have a lot of written or verbal narrative. Our goal is also to gather the stories of today's experiences, so that 50 years from now, researchers and historians will have a deep wealth and breadth of what it was like.


LFLBC: What is the vision for the History Center?

CS: We are looking to expand our programming and embrace more diverse narratives. Over the next three years we’re doing ‘Twenty in the 20s,’ examining what life was like from 1920-1929 for 20-year-olds, versus what life is like today.  We'll be focusing on young women first, prohibition and social norms in the summer, and then young men returning from the military and World War I for the fall.


In Year 2, we’ll be doing lectures and a special exhibit on The Grand Tour. After people graduated from high school or college, they would go on these grand adventures in other parts of the world. We’ll focus on that experience and compare it to today and the interim. We want to create a whole program around that idea of being from Lake Forest or Lake Bluff and then going to see the world—where, why, when and how long was that experience?


After that, we’re doing ‘From Glacier to Global Warming.’ We’ll look at how climate change has affected this area. Ten thousand years ago, we were covered under hundreds of feet of ice: how do you get from that point to here and how does two more degrees make such a difference in the population of the animals and the plant life? This issue really affects us because we're part of the Great Lakes.


LFLBC: What has been your greatest initiative that you've undertaken recently?

CS: The biggest thing has been fundraising for all these programs. We’re identifying the corporate sponsors and individual donors that are willing to come forward and say, ‘that matters to me and I really want to be part of making that happen.’


LFLBC: What other local businesses do you work with?

CS: We’re lucky to have several local businesses as program sponsors. The Deer Path Inn is excited about sponsoring our upcoming Open House where we’ll debut Studio 509, our new oral history recording booth. We partner with so many local organizations on our programs—the Library, Gorton Center, the Lake Bluff History Museum. It's really important that we share stories and look to work in concert with each other. We don't want to be too repetitive of stories, so we’re partnering with The Lake Bluff History Museum on the Prohibition exhibit. We’ll be partnering with Ragdale on a program for Rebecca Makkai’s ‘The Great Believers,’ with a focus on the changing management of epidemics. Abbott and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital have generously pitched in as program sponsors


LFLBC: How do you give back to the community?

CS: We have three criteria in the programming that we use:

Give people the opportunity to learn more about the place they live in; give people an opportunity to learn more about the people around them; and give people an opportunity to learn more about themselves. By doing those things, we help create a stronger sense of community, and people do feel a stronger sense of attachment to place, to people and to themselves being a part of that.


LFLBC: Is there anything else you would like to share?

CS: It’s a little-known resource, but we have a public archive. Anybody who's interested in doing research just needs to put in a request and we will pull information from the archive and set them up in a research carrel in the archives so that they can explore topics of interest to them.