Often when it comes to the best things in life, timing plays a pivotal role. Highland Park’s Carol Summerfield would vouch for this sentiment 100 percent. As we sit in the bright new office space of The History Center of Lake Forest–Lake Bluff—a far cry from the tiny coach house that once housed our community’s historical archives— Summerfield explains why she walked away from the flourishing consulting business she founded.
“I hadn’t intended to slide in to this full-time role,” says Summerfield, who recently joined The History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff as its new executive director. “I really loved running my own company. But I saw this opportunity in front of us to change the museum world—to show museums how to adjust to the world that’s coming—and I had to be a part of it.” Summerfield knew she had a chance to build a legacy in the community.
The History Center was originally founded in 1972 as the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society with 100 charter members who were committed to preserve the history of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. For many years, the Historical Society maintained an office in at the Gorton Community Center before opening its first museum in a former coach house at 361 E. Westminster Street. But in 2016, after a multimillion-dollar capital campaign, the Historical Society moved to the former Church of Christ Scientist at 509 E. Deerpath Road, renovated the space into its current state-of- the-art History Center of Lake Forest- Lake Bluff.
“Before they officially hired me, I was working with the History Center’s board
on how to increase audience engagement. It’s the age-old question for museums
that if someone can find the information they need online, at 11 p.m. in their pajamas, they’re not going to come through the museum door,” she says, adding: “We need to identify a deeper narrative and build a deeper connection to the stories. And we need to be creative. If we don’t find a way to show that these local history museums have value, we will fade. But we’re fortunate to have a community that has invested in making this happen—they believe in what we’re doing.”
In addition to providing interactive touch screens with searchable local history as well as a rotating historical exhibit, the History Center is building a recording studio where residents can record their own personal histories through a series of prompts.
“This is so exciting and we’re the first to use technology, this way, and in this setting,” says Summerfield. “There are nearly infinite stories we can tell.” Once the recordings are made, they will be tagged and catalogued by our History Center curator to enhance their accessibility. “Fifty years ago, people wrote letters and kept diaries—we don’t do that any more,” she says. “While we have a great catalog of photos, we don’t have the written narrative. These recording capabilities will help with this. Residents can talk about whatever they want—a milestone, a party, a family member, a teacher. There is such animation in the spoken story.”
One of her personal favorites?
“When I first moved up here a dozen years ago and would commute from the Fort Sheridan train station, I was one of two women standing on the platform. By the end of my commuting run, women were more than 50 percent of the people going to the city,” she says. “That was a huge change I saw firsthand in just a little over a decade. Now imagine this story from someone 30 years older than me or 30 years younger than me. What we will start to build is a deep tapestry of how life has changed. Imagine if someday someone can come here and listen to their grandparent speak. It gives me chills to think about this.”
With eyes set on the future, Summerfield is most excited about a series of lectures that will take place in 2020,“20 in the 20s.” This exhibit will look at what it was like to be in your 20s, in 1920, and in your 20s, in 2020.
“We are having to turn away interns who want to help us with this project,” an enthu- siastic Summerfield says. “But the collaborative possibilities with The Lake Bluff Museum, Gorton Community Center, Ragdale, or the Lake Forest Symphony are endless. It’s this type of content that keeps us all relevant.”
The History Center also has re-envisioned its membership to better align itself with where members see value. They’re now offering various levels of tickets based on a member’s financial support so they can maximize their use of the center’s program ming.
“We’re redefining the museum narrative,”
Summerfield says. “The goal of our programming is to improve a person’s sense of self, of place, and of community. This will ultimately make you a stronger community member.”