ELMHURST – Brian Bergheger, who has led the Elmhurst History Museum for the past 29 years, will retire in October this year. Under his management, the museum has continually added to the cultural fabric of the community through unique exhibits and initiatives that focus on the history of Elmhurst and the local region. Juan Pablo Garcia sat down with Bergheger for a short reflection on his role with the Elmhurst History Museum throughout his career.
Garcia: How did you end up leading the Elmhurst History Museum?
Bergheger: I like to think it was plain luck given the path I had taken since that time. I was looking for a new job. I had worked for the Minnesota Historical Society, I had been a director of a county museum in Kansas, and also the director at a wonderful place called the Western Heritage center in Billings, Montana. I was hoping to get closer to a metropolitan area, and I actually had two options at that time. I chose Elmhurst History Museum based on the museum itself and the support that I saw in the community of Elmhurst.
Garcia: Elmhurst must have been very different 29 years ago. In your opinion, what has been the biggest change?
Bergheger: In hindsight, I think maybe the biggest change has been the transformation of the downtown district and surrounding residential district. When I moved here in 1988, the downtown area was struggling. There were empty storefronts and not a lot of activity in the evening. I have to give a lot of credit to Willis Johnson and Tivoli Enterprises. I think it was about that time that they came in and bought the York Theatre and in the early ’90s began redeveloping York Theatre, which has become a destination not only for Elmhurst residents, but also for people in other communities. And the city also had a plan for the development of the downtown commercial district and started working the plan.
Things don’t happen overnight, and it always takes more than one individual and one entity, but between the city and businesses and property owners, change started happening, and today you see a higher density in the surrounding residential area of city centre, and city centre itself is a fixed entity as a result of that plan. I look at the downtown commercial district and I think people in Elmhurst should be pleased and proud because it was a plan that played out over the years and has taken in so much input from so many people and entities. It has been a benefit for people in Elmhurst, I think.
Garcia: Of all the exhibitions you have had the opportunity to oversee, is there one that stands out in your memory?
Bergheger: I would have to say its the “By All Accounts” exhibit that is a long-term installation about the history of Elmhurst. It opened around 2.5 years ago. It was a project headed up by Lance Tawzer, our curator of exhibits, and of course required input and support from the entire staff. It was really an institutional goal and we were really pleased by the outcome. It has a lot of media, it tells the Elmhurst story from a number of perspectives and is something that we have continued to update over time. And I have to say that it has some wonderful artifacts in it from the museum collection, and it is great to see those artifacts being part of the experience for visitors, because museums are all about their collections. It’s great to see our collection at work.
Garcia: Running an organization like the Elmhurst History Museum is not easy, what were there biggest challenges you faced?
Bergheger: Organizationally the museum has changed since I started in ’88. We have grown to the point where there is a very active nonprofit support organization – the Elmhurst Heritage Foundation – that is private fundraising arm for the museum and also an advocacy group for the museum. I think as anyone who is involved in a board will tell you, perpetuating the board in it of itself is a big and never ending task, because board members come and go over time. But I think having a great group of people involved through the board has helped us face that challenge and has helped us build the board and its strength.
Another challenging aspect is juggling multiple interests in the museum. We have a nonprofit fundraising advisory board, and they bring a lot of experience, energy and interest to their work with the museum. We have a great staff at the museum that is professionally trained and has a lot of experience, and there are different interests there. And of course, I have been fortunate to serve as department director within the city of Elmhurst, and there are separate interests in having a parent organization like the city. So really my role was bringing all those interests together, finding shared goals, and balancing interests as we moved forward.
Garcia: What would you say was your greatest accomplishment?
Bergheger: I don’t know that there is one greatest accomplishment. I like to look at the journey, as they say, or at the path. I think the creation of a nonprofit supporting organization that is committed to raising private dollars for a public entity is something I’m really proud of, and I’m so pleased to see that it is strong and active. I think also continuing to have the museum be a strong element within our parent organization, the city of Elmhurst, is something I’m very pleased with.
And again, those accomplishments aren’t my accomplishments as much as having the city manager buy into a plan for what we’re doing, or have a board of directors buy into growing that organization, and so forth. The foundation has an endowment of about a million dollars now, which has grown over time. That is something that doesn’t happen over one month or one year, and it takes a commitment of not only myself but a number of people, like the board and donors, so it’s great to see that type of support.
Garcia: Why is it important to have an institution that safeguards the history of a local community?
The more we can inform ourselves on the way those topics play out in our minds, in our values, in our behavior, the stronger our communities are going to be.
Bergheger: One of the amazing things about the U.S. is that a lot of communities have history museums, and those museums are at various stages of development in their professionalism and engagement with audiences, but taken together, they really tell a story of the development of not only that community but the development of the United States. We play a role in that as a local history museum. It’s a small role, but it’s important to the nation for us to be able to participate in that.
Locally, I think its really important to have a history museum because there is a way that history plays out over time. It’s a cliché to say that if you don’t learn from your past you will make the same mistakes again, but I think people do engage with the place they live in by making assumptions and bringing perceptions when they’re new residents, and having the history of a place inform those assumptions and inform those perceptions and inform those points of view makes it a stronger community. Look at what’s hot in history these days, race and gender are very important. We can all see how our own perspectives about race and gender are base on our experience. The more we can inform ourselves on the way those topics play out in our minds, in our values, in our behavior, the stronger our communities are going to be.
Garcia: History is about the past, but it might give us a glimpse as to what the future might look like. Where is Elmhurst heading?
Bergheger: I wish I had a crystal ball, because then I would have a lot of power here. But based on Elmhurst as a model midwestern suburban community, it has a great future ahead of it. The city is so well run, so absolutely well run, that it continues to surprise me. There is a plan in place, there are people who are watching that plan, there are people who are extending that plan, too, with an eye on the past, so that those great things that residents and business owners feel are important in contributing to the success of the community are carried forward and considered in the community.
You look at Elmhurst and it’s really well balanced. There is a strong residential aspect to it, a very, very, very strong institutional presence – we have the Lizzadro Museum, the Elmhurst Art Museum, the Elmhurst History Museum, there’s a college, the symphony orchestra, a lot of service groups. There is this engagement that people have with their community and other people in Elmhurst. I think it shows that people care, and I think at the end of the day if you have a community where people care, good things are going to happen. Maybe they’re small things incrementally, as opposed to a bunch of small mistakes that up to a big mistake over time, you have small successes that add up to big things that are good for the community over time.
Garcia: What are you going to miss the most?
Bergheger: At least initially I think I’m going to miss getting up and getting to the museum early. I’m an early riser. I like to be at work at 7 a.m., and I’ll probably get up that first week and start pacing and wondering, “What am I going to do now?” I think I’ll miss the broad assortment of people that I work with over a day, a week, or a month. That includes the staff at the museum, our board of directors, it includes the city manager and other people from the city, it will include folks at the chamber that we worked with, and partners like the other museums and the park district. I’ll miss the people.
Garcia: What is next for you?
Bergheger: I’m looking forward very much to stepping away front the museum and have an opportunity to kind of sample different directions that I’d like to take. I’m going to become involved as a volunteer in some things I haven’t been able to volunteer in. I’ll have the opportunity to learn some things that are unrelated to museums and the history profession, things that I’m curious about, but have never really had the time to learn. So I’m going to get involved in some of those things, and I’ll have more time to travel, so we will see.