Meet a Naturalist: Amy McNeil, a lifelong history buff
For Amy McNeil, working at Isle a la Cache Museum is an example that life does sometimes come full circle.
McNeil, a program coordinator for the Forest Preserve, visited the museum on a field trip as an elementary school student and remembers thinking it would be a fun place to work. And now today she leads field trips like the one she went on as a child, and she’s discovered it is, indeed, a fun place.
She doesn’t remember all the details of her field trip, but she remembers little snippets of what they saw and learned. “I have little snapshots of it in my mind, but I remember that I had fun,” she said.
Today, she hopes visitors to Isle a la Cache — be it kids on a field trip, people attending a program or visitors exploring the museum exhibits — walk away with that same sense of having had fun and having learned something.
“My goal is for anyone who visits to walk away with newfound knowledge. And it doesn’t have to be something big or massive,” she said. “If you walk away with that newfound knowledge, not only do you have a great conversation starter, but it also confirms that I’m doing my job.”
McNeil is a history buff, and that field trip to the museum as an elementary school student happened right about the time she started getting interested in history. Then and now, the museum is a place that lets people become immersed in another time period, not just read about it in books.
“We’re always taught history, and it’s always very sterile, just in history books,” she said. “But when you go someplace that makes it fun and makes it hands-on, where you get to try things that are historical, I think that kind of bridges that gap.”
One of her goals is to make history relatable.
“There’s things I feel like we can hit on to make it relevant to this time period,” she said. For example, the museum focuses on the fur trade era, and during that time, furs were essentially the currency of the day. Even though we no longer barter furs, money is a concept that transcends time.
When talking about the past, McNeil said she tries to encourage people to think of how individuals living at that time would have felt about what was happening.
“I think empathy is a big theme in history,” she said. “We should all just be empathetic toward others and caring for others, whether they are different — different culture, different religion, anything.”
Our history includes some difficult topics to talk about, and McNeil said it’s important to address these parts of our past. “I think the big thing is not to dance around the topic. I think it’s best to be direct.”
Our history can teach us lessons, help us avoid mistakes and also address new challenges in the future, she said.
“History isn’t always easy to talk about, and sometimes it can be quite difficult, especially when talking about tough subjects like slavery, immigrant treatment and American Indian removals,” McNeil said. “But it’s these hard histories that are important for people to learn. Histories are lessons from the past.”
Since McNeil is a history buff, it should come as no surprise that her favorite preserve — Joliet Iron Works Historic Site — is one so rooted in the region’s history. She remembers visiting the site with her family as a kid, riding her bike from Iron Works to Dellwood Park in Lockport and back. Back then, she said it seemed like such as exotic place, like the ruins of an ancient city. Visiting it helped pique her interest in history.
It's not just the region’s history that Iron Works is so ingrained in. It’s also an important part of her family’s history. One of her great-grandfathers worked on the steel mill’s rail line, the EJ&E Railway, and her other great-grandfather worked as a rigger at the mill.
“I was born and raised in Joliet, and I’ve always been proud of my city’s heritage,” she said.
She said many people who live in the area don’t know a lot about the city’s industrial past, but Iron Works is a great place for people to dig into it because the preserve features an interpretive trail that walks visitors through the history of both the site and those who worked there.
Before working for the Forest Preserve, McNeil was a preschool teacher. Her job at Isle a la Cache allows her to combine two things she enjoys — history and working with kids.
“Really young kids are just so enjoyable because they’re sponges,” she said. “They want to learn, and sometimes it’s funny how brutally honest they are.”
Leading the WonderKids programs at Isle a la Cache provides her with plenty of opportunities to see kids leaving the museum excited about what they learned. At a recent program, the kids learned about turtles. Afterward, some of the kids were exploring the museum and looking at the turtle tank. There McNeil saw the kids telling their parents why the turtles are camouflaged, and that’s what the job is all about, she said.
Whether a preschooler at WonderKids or an adult checking out the museum exhibits, she hopes every visitor leaves having had a good time or having learned something new — “something that they in turn are excited to share with someone else.”
At Isle a la Cache, there are so many opportunities for learning and discovery because the focus is on both our cultural history and the natural world. While those might seem like two distinct subjects that are difficult to tie together, McNeil said those two topics naturally go hand in hand.
“We always have lived off the land. … So much is affected by our natural world,” she said. “We’re always looking to our natural resources — for food, for shelter, for space. They are so intertwined with each other.”