Garvey shares loves of stories through artifacts at the Museum of the Grand Prairie


Barb Oehlschlaeger-Garvey was interested in artifacts at a young age.

“When I was 5, my brother (Fritz) was 11 and we got out card tables and put random stuff on them,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. “We charged our grandparents a penny or a nickel apiece to view everything.

“Fritz had a collection of plastic animals and I had mostly rocks and sticks.”

Her curiosity and interest was encouraged by her father, Fred, who “was an avid insect collector.”

Growing up in the northwest suburbs of Cincinnati, regular family outings were to the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“My parents took us every year,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. “I remember what you’d now call the transformative experiences, a room right inside (the main door) that was dark and had a mummy dramatically lit.”

As she plotted her career course, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey eventually changed directions.

“I wanted to be a biologist and develop alternatives to insecticides,” she said. “I was going to save the world.”

Instead, in a sense, she has helped preserve a portion of the world.

“I got sidetracked and became an anthropology major,”  Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

When she and her family relocated to Champaign in 1978, it was so Oehlschlaeger-Garvey could attend graduate school at the University of Illinois in art history.

“I wanted to do museum study,” she said. “I’ve liked that museums tell the stories of regular guys, not just the movers and shakers.

“We should be humbled by the people that came before us so we could have a good life. I like to communicate that every day. We need to understand, life has never been easy for people.”

In the decades that have followed the family’s move, she has stuck close to what is truly a lifetime passion.

Earlier this month, she celebrated her 17th year of employment at the Museum of the Grand Prairie.

Her association with the building that is located just off of Rt. 47 North, can be traced to 1990.

“I applied for a job as a grant writer and Cheryl (Kennedy, former director) hired me,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

A mother of three (now-grown) children, she was a part-time seasonal worker and then assumed a role of volunteer.

“For seven or eight years, I was on the advisory committee that helps with deciding whether to accept or reject (donation) offers,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

Decisions are made about donations on a case-by-case basis.

“Our mission is to interpret the cultural and natural history of Champaign County,”

Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. “It has to be in good shape and tell a good story.

“It can’t be that it’s worth a lot of money or is beautiful. People come to the museum to be inspired by things.”

Since storage space is limited, she said that “being able to take care of it is a big deal. There are many, many steps in the process.”

Generally, duplicates are declined unless, she said, “it makes sense in an educational program.”

If an item or display is rejected, it’s not like the individual finds the door shut in their face.

“Normally, we are pretty good about offering people other places to donate,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

The timeline for what is upcoming is beyond what folks might expect.

“The general idea is to plan two or three years ahead,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said, “and we have a good idea about programs and exhibits at least a year to a year and a half in advance.”

Oehlschlaeger-Garvey was the museum curator for 12 years and, since 2013, has served as the director.

Starting the first weekend of February, the Museum of the Grand Prairie started weekend hours. In March, it will be business as usual on a daily basis.

The big draw in 2018 will be the 50-year celebration of when the museum opened.

“We’ll have an exhibit of all things that happened in the county in 1968,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

The museum will also help commemorate another anniversary this year.

There will be smaller exhibits to pay tribute to the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI.

“There will be one about Chanute Air Force Base (in Rantoul) and why it was formed (to train pilots in WWI),” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. “There will be one about (long-time Mahomet resident) Jesse Dowell, a WWI veteran who was in Harry Truman’s unit and who farmed across the road (west of the museum).”

Later in the year, there will be exhibits in honor of local veteran George Bowen Busey, who died in WWI, and in honor of the founding of American Legion units in Champaign County, which Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said “were formed in the wake of WWI.”

Coming up with topics is only one portion of the process in bringing an exhibit to life.

“It’s a challenge to make sure you have the artifacts you want to support a story,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

Museums have changed from the era when “every artifact was out on a table or in a case and they didn’t try to weave them into a coherent story,” she added.

The bottom line is not financial gain.

“We try to make things low-cost or free,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. “We want it to be accessible for everybody.”

She is in charge of a staff of four full-time and five part-time employees.

“I’m fortunate to have a wonderful staff and amazing volunteers,” she said.

In 2017, the more than 40 volunteers combined to donate more than 2,500 hours.

Often when an exhibit ends its run at the Museum of the Grand Prairie, it is recycled.

In 2007, the museum had an exhibit on the Eastern Illinois Baseball League, which is now in its 83rd year of existence.

“That exhibit traveled to different venues,” she said. “It went to Danville and Decatur.

“It’s like  my husband (John, a French teacher at Urbana Uni High) said, ‘Don’t have a tool in the kitchen that can’t be used for more than one thing.’ “

The Museum of the Grand Prairie is one of approximately a half-dozen downstate accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (and has been since 1972). Oehlschlaeger-Garvey plans to stay on staff at least through the next accreditation process, which will occur in 2023.

Interest in the museum has mushroomed.

“It has steadily been on the rise since 2012,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

Last year’s numbers show more than 11,000 casual visitors, approximately 7,000 children as part of school programs, another 5,000 for public presentations along with what

Oehlschlaeger-Garvey estimated as almost 10,000 for “environmental education programs.”

She can’t wait to get an assortment of programs in operation for this year.

Feb. 19 is designated as “School’s Out Day,” and she said, “we’ll have a Lincoln impersonator. Bring questions to ask Abe and have birthday cake and activities.”

In April will be a presentation on foods that were new in 1968. In May in Rantoul, a panel discussion is scheduled about the Vietnam war.

Then, during the summer there will be a special presentation about the crew from Apollo 8 that orbited the moon and returned to Earth.

To find out more about upcoming programs and events at the Museum of the Grand Prairie, visit their website at or
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