Bill McElhone says it was destiny that he became a museum man. He grew up in Detroit, and several members of his family worked at The Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, including his father and his uncle, who became a vice president for the museum. His father and mother met on the grounds when she attended the Edison Institute High School and he drove the school bus. McElhone himself worked on the museum’s grounds crew as a teenager, and his grandfather worked there as a security guard in his retirement.
“There’s just all these family connections. I guess it was just destiny,” he says. “Having that access to all that history and being able to go behind the scenes moving furniture or cutting grass or going inside these buildings where no other guests or visitors could go got me really interested in living history.”
McElhone chose to attend Central Michigan University “because they had an on-campus museum.” There he earned bachelor’s degrees in history and art and a minor in museum studies. He went on to get a master’s degree in history from Wayne State University and worked for the Birmingham Historical Museum and Park, in Birmingham, Michigan, and the Lehigh County Historical Society, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and in several positions at The Henry Ford before landing at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum nine years ago.
“Some of it was luck and serendipitous, but most of it was pretty much by design,” the 56-year-old says of his career. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I say that my wife hates that because she says she’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do.”
What is your job like?
Museums are much more than just a box with stuff in it, and museum operations are complex. We have to be stewards of authentic collection. So we collect and preserve our local history for the long term. We have to be disciplined about what we collect and make sure that it fully represents the community.
When this museum started in 1927, the collections were more based on rocks, coral, fossils and natural history. When local philanthropists traveled, they would collect these things, bring them back, and museums like ours would often become beneficiaries of their collections. But today, with the growing awareness about inclusivity and diversity, we’re reevaluating our collections and whether we truly represent the community that we’re part of. Because we’re part of Kalamazoo Valley Community College and “community” is in the title itself, we treat that as a very important part of what we are.
But it’s more than just collecting artifacts, right?
It’s also commitment to education. We’re very committed to the hands-on experience. We know that 90 percent of real learning takes place if you’re doing, and if you’re actually doing it, then you’re more likely to retain that information. We don’t want to hit you over the head with history or science, we want you to actually be really engaged and have fun.
Are there any Kalamazoo artifacts that you wish the museum had?
There are, and this is something we are working on — the Murphy Darden collection (featured in Encore in February 2019). Murphy’s collection has a lot of things local to Kalamazoo, especially black history. I would love for us to continue the stewardship he started. We’re working with the Darden family, and I think that was in the article, but nothing has advanced to more of a formal acquisition. He and I know that he doesn’t want to part with this stuff until he’s no longer able to stand upright and part of this world. And I assured them that we are in no rush for that and that we just wanted to make sure of his wishes about how he’d like to see the collection utilized.
What’s the biggest challenge in your job?
We, and all museums, are wrestling with collections and archives and digital technology. We now get donations of photos that are not printed. They’re just digital copies. How do you archive that indefinitely? At the same time, if you archive it all digitally, then you will constantly be updating to the most current format.
There’s also having the actual item. I use the example of cassette tapes — you can transfer what’s on them to a digital format, but there’s still the artifact of the actual item. And once the cassette player is gone, then you don’t have that.
Do you ever run out of room?
Yes. Room is a constant thing. Part of the decision-making as we go back and look at our collections is determining what is really relevant to the storytelling that we think we’re going to be telling in the future. And you want to hang on to things too, because you don’t know exactly (what the future stories will be).
What’s your favorite artifact in the museum’s collection?
Probably the Checker Cab. Because of my Detroit roots and my automotive connections, I have always had an affinity for cars. When I worked at The Henry Ford museum, the research we got to do there was all automotive-related. But Checker Cab is just a neat story, and I ought to be honest: Until I moved here, I didn’t realize Checker was manufactured in Kalamazoo.
What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?
I love to spend time with my family (his wife, Leona Gould-McElhone, and his teenage daughter) and travel. We take short trips, like to South Haven or Saugatuck or Chicago and Detroit. Detroit is always fun because I know it well enough, but I (also) don’t (know it well) because there’s so much change there.
— Interviewed by Marie Lee