Museum director Servis finds her calling in bringing history to life

On her first day working for the Jacksonville Area Museum and the MacMurray Foundation, McKenna Servis discovered an original signature of one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century.

“I was given a MacMurray student’s collection to process, and that included her weekly letters to her parents,” Servis said. “During the summer, the student went to work in Washington, D.C., for the FBI, and on my first day on the job, I discovered several original letters from J. Edgar Hoover that were in her file, confirming that she had worked for the FBI over the summer.”

Servis’ first day on the job as an intern last summer turned into a museum director, the first paid employee at the new Jacksonville-area museum. Servis oversees the daily operations of the museum, curates its collections, and helps develop exhibits and programs. She also works for the MacMurray Foundation as part of her duties and oversees the preservation and interpretation of the Old College’s collections.

The Hoover letters aren’t the only find Servis has made at the museum.

“I came across an original signature by William Jennings Bryan in the museum’s collection,” Servis said. “It was a letter to Richard Yates saying he couldn’t come to one of the Yates’ gatherings. Bryan and Yates are so important to Illinois College, and I’m here, holding something they have touch.

Illinois College is special for Servis, 22, as she is a senior there and plans to graduate in May with a double major in political science and history and a concentration in public history. She wants to pursue a master’s degree in public history, possibly at the University of Illinois at Springfield, while continuing to work at the museum.

Servis is a Petersburg native and graduate of PORTA High School who decided to attend Illinois College because it was close to home and had a small community feel. She applied for an internship through the New Salem State Historic Site College in Lincoln, and that experience convinced Servis that public history is what she wants to do as a career.

“I was still in period dress, in the village to perform but also to learn from practical demonstrations,” Servis said. “I learned rope making, cooking over a fire, all kinds of skills starting in the 1830s. Eventually I learned to blacksmith, but I didn’t pick it up as quickly as I I learned some things, it was just much more complicated, plus it was summer and it was just too hot.

“The most enjoyable thing was learning how to dye wool and what they would use, from onion skins to insects to create fabric dyes,” Servis said. “Watching visitors react to us as we’ve been doing things since the 1830s was really cool.”

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Servis was offered a summer job in New Salem after her internship, which confirmed that she was on the right career path. She also continues to serve on the board of the New Salem Lincoln League.

“It reaffirmed that not only was I interested in it, but that I was good at it,” Servis said. “Being able to be good at something you love to do was my ‘a-ha’ moment.”

About a year ago, Servis learned that the Jacksonville Area Museum was looking for summer interns as the institution prepared for its fall opening. There were multiple applicants for the two paid internships, and Servis had to go through an interview to determine if she was the right fit.

“The interview process was nerve-wracking, I had to write a statement of purpose, send in my CV, and then I was interviewed via Zoom by three board members,” Servis said. “I’m still here so I think I did well.”

Servis and fellow Illinois College student Timothy Blackwell spent the summer helping the museum’s board prepare the institution for its opening to the public.

“The hands-on experience of building a museum is a chance I’ll probably never have again,” Servis said. “We had a lot of freedom and we felt the board trusted us. We were confident in our choices because of the freedom we had.

Servis has also experienced the often chaotic preparations required to open a new museum while working alongside an all-volunteer board.

“I think the one thing that screamed ‘we’re run by volunteers’ was the behind-the-scenes work where we frantically try to pull it all together,” Servis said. “But what we’ve all done together is incredible, and the public knows it.”

Servis’ internship ended in August, and she was retained by the MacMurray Foundation on a part-time basis to help organize the massive amount of closed college material that is housed at the Jacksonville Area Museum. Several months later, Servis learned that the museum and the MacMurray Foundation intended to hire a museum director to lead the institution, and that she was being strongly considered for the position.

Several interviews and board meetings later, Servis was hired as director of the museum. It started on January 2.

“I don’t know if there’s a word to describe how I feel, it almost seems unreal that I’m involved in something that is so important to the history of Jacksonville,” Servis said. “It’s worth my many late nights here.”

Servis is the person who usually greets visitors to the museum, but she is also busy behind the scenes, processing and organizing the collections of the museum and the MacMurray Foundation. She began entering these collections into a Past Perfect museum collection software database and organized the artifacts and materials to make them easier to locate and preserve. Servis also works with board members to develop expanded exposures of Capps Clothing and William Jennings Bryan.

The Servis family was “just as invested in the museum as I am; they were here before and after the museum opened,” Servis said, adding that she hopes to stay in Jacksonville for a while after she graduates.

About Carlos V. Mitchell

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