Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey retires from CCFPD after 22 (actually 32) years.

Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey retires from CCFPD after 22 (actually 32) years.

Mahomet Daily

Thank you, for honoring our friend and colleague, Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey, as she retires from The Museum of the Grand Prairie and Champaign County Forest Preserve District❤️


Published Date: February 2, 2023

By Dani Tietz

There’s something special about Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey.

Maybe it’s her soft demeanor that greets patrons at the Museum of the Grand Prairie. Maybe it’s the way she tears up as she tells the stories of local men and women who made their way toward the greater good for all. Or it could be her willingness to share chapters in American history that don’t make it into the books. 

But as the workday of Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, ended, so did her 22-year employment tenure with the Champaign County Forest Preserve. 

There is good news, though, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey has already submitted her volunteer application with the forest preserve, ensuring that at some point in the future, her presence will still be part of the Museum of the Grand Prairie, just as it was for the decade she spent writing grants and proposals while serving on the museum advisory committee in the 1990s. 

To put Oehlschlaeger-Garvey’s time at the Museum of the Grand Prairie into perspective, it’s important to know that it opened 55 years ago, in 1968. At the time, she was still living in her hometown, Cincinnati. Garvey went on to study anthropology and art history at Indiana University before beginning her doctoral studies in art history at the University of Illinois. 

In lending her time to the museum in the 1990s, while also working at the U of I, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey has been with the museum for more than half of its existence. 

For Oehlschlaeger-Garvey, it was always meant to be. 

She remembers building a museum of little trinkets and toy animals on her family’s table with her brother when she was 5 years old, selling tickets to her grandparents for five cents. 

“I grew up in Cincinnati, and I had a real passion for Cincinnati history when I was a kid,” she said. “So I had to adapt to a new home (Champaign County) and find a new love of history here.”

In the Land of Lincoln, that is fairly easy. 

“You walk down the streets that Abraham Lincoln walked down,” she said. “It’s not that hard to make it important.”

Her method of curation had to come a long way from those early days in Cincinnati, though. 

When she joined the Champaign County Forest Preserve team in 2001, she was part of a movement to add a museum and education department, bridging the gap between the forest preserves and life in East Central Illinois. 

“I think that’s been really, really helpful for presenting the natural and cultural history of Champaign County,” she said.  

That movement went on to help inform some of the exhibits over the years. 

As the Director of the Museum and Education Department, Garvey has helped develop permanent exhibits, such as “The Grand Prairie Story,” a look at how humans lived with the land from the time of the glaciers until now, and “Discovering Home,” a children’s exhibit focused on family and home in East Central Illinois. 

Perhaps her favorite exhibits though, are the annual exhibits that pull a national topic into the local lens.

For example, there’s the “1968” exhibit of 2019. Garvey said that the museum group could have just focused on the history of the museum, and all it accomplished over its 50-year history. Instead, Garvey’s team decided to look at how 1968 was a “catalyst for later change,” highlighting the civil rights movement, the environment, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Vietnam War. Events throughout the year highlighted local leaders such as Candy Foster, Izona Burgess, and Stan West, who talked about how social subjects shaped life then, drawing similarities to what happens today. 

The following year, the museum told the story of the women’s suffrage movement, telling the unknown stories of how advocates in Champaign County helped propel the national movement for equal rights and responsibilities as American citizens.

Women, such as Julia Burnham and Mary Busey, used their positions to start a hospital and library in Champaign and Urbana while Jane Patton owned her own property while raising her kids after being widowed. 

Although the museum is closed for its winter update, they currently have a special exhibit looking at how disease has informed decisions and lifestyles in both the present and the past. 

Bringing those stories to life for the Champaign County community at the Museum of the Grand Prairie serves a purpose in a world where information can appear to be polarized. 

“I think the American Alliance of Museums has surveyed the public a bajillion times, and they always come up with the same answer,” she said. “Museums are one of the most trusted sources of news there is. I think there’s a reason for that, we tend to present a balanced, kind of middle-of-the-road discussion of things that have happened.” 

Still, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said, “there are voices who have been underrepresented forever. We should feel obligated to represent those underrepresented voices. But that doesn’t mean that all the good that we’ve done in the past is gone. It just means that it’s a bigger choir. We enjoy bringing in as many voices as we can.”

For Oehlschlaeger-Garvey that begins and ends with “humility.”

“I like telling other people’s stories because we’re all special,” she said. “We need to learn from other people. We should be so humbled by the things people have done so that we could be who we are.”

The multitude of perspectives begins with a variety of people on the mission-oriented storytelling team, though. Over the years, the museum staff grew to include a public programs manager, two education program specialists, a curator of collections and exhibits, and a registrar. 

“Everybody sees things slightly differently, and so does our audience,” she said. “It helps to craft a voice for an exhibit that’s more universal. We (the Champaign County Forest Preserve team at large) work together on all kinds of projects. And it always makes a better product.”

Outside of special programs, it may be hard for visitors at the Museum of the Grand Prairie to see the people doing the work behind the scenes. It may be one of the things Oehlschlaeger-Garvey misses the most, though. 

“It’s really evident that what they’re doing matters to them,” she said. “Not just for them, but for the greater community and for the children of the future.”

Yes, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey plans on continuing to be part of the Champaign County Forest Preserve as a volunteer in the future, but she also has some other things on her retirement docket.

She plans to spend time with her three daughters and grandchildren, who live nearby in Champaign County, east coast, and in Japan. She also plans to take trips, including one to France, just like she talked about doing with her late husband, John. 

Then, “I have 1000 projects that I might do,” she said.

On that list are tasks like writing about her church’s history and unfinished tasks from her dissertation, a document she may not have touched in a while, but one her oldest daughter has not forgotten.

“She was 16 when I took this job, and after I finished my first exhibit, she said, ‘You know, mom, I didn’t know if I could be prouder of you than I was when you finished your PhD, but now I am prouder of you.’

“And then last week, when I was telling her about my goodbye party, and all the nice things people said, she said, ‘Mommy, you did it. You did everything you wanted to do.’”