“That’s Longfellow,” explains Christa Deacy-Quinn as she nonchalantly points to a bust of the 19th century poet. Deacy-Quinn, the Spurlock Museum’s collections manager, is “resurrecting the poet” for the Urbana Free Library.
“We have one of the largest collections of plaster casts in Illinois,” Deacy-Quinn says proudly as she plays with her short, flaming red hair. “Yeah, we rock,” she says modestly.
Deacy-Quinn has no reason to be humble. She has been working at the museum for 14 years and has been there the longest out of any employee. As the head of the collections department at Spurlock, the University of Illinois’s only cultural museum, she watches over 46,000 artifacts with a mother’s eye. She was also a vital force in moving those artifacts from the top of Lincoln Hall, the museum’s old site, to the new site in Urbana in 2002.
“I have touched everything inside this museum,” Deacy-Quinn says, as her bluish-green eyes dart across the room. “I’ve helped build every exhibit,” she adds, as she rearranges one of the hundreds of books lining her fire engine red desk. Although it is in the basement, her office allows a few rays of afternoon sunshine in through a small window.
“I designed my office myself,” Deacy-Quinn explains. “I kinda like red.”
When she talks, Deacy-Quinn makes sure to say the name of the person she is talking to at least once every sentence. She engages the person she is talking to, especially because she cares so much about what she is talking about.
“She is all about collections,” says Kim Sheahan, the Assistant Director of Education at Spurlock, and one of Deacy-Quinn’s friends. “She strives to be the very best at every facet of her job–passion is an understatement.”
As Deacy-Quinn walks through the basement of Spurlock, she knows everyone.
“Don’t say anything bad about me while the reporter’s here,” she jokingly says in the lunchroom.
She walks into one of the preservation rooms to find a combination of volunteers and employees. The artificially lit room is cement all around and the walls are lined with tools, file cabinets and adhesives. A small boom box in the corner is playing “Billie Jean” in the corner and Deacy-Quinn’s lips can be seen mouthing some of the lyrics while she hovers around the room.
Erik Larson, a junior in College of Business, is unraveling some African clothing. Deacy-Quinn watches as he unwraps the garments.
“Erik is pretty independent, but I like to push him around a little bit,” Deacy-Quinn says.
“I suppose bosses are allowed to be eclectic,” Larson retorts.
Eclectic is probably the right word to describe Deacy-Quinn. She wears a pair of heart-patterned socks under her moccasins and pearl earrings that stick out because of her short hair. She lives in Urbana with her husband, although they have no children. In her free time, she researches things for the museum and reads about artifacts and history. Her life is undoubtedly intertwined with that of the museum.
“This museum is pretty broke,” she says, explaining that “most museums are poor, especially since 9/11.” The funding for museums has gone down, and she says that she has to make personal relationships with donors in order for the museum to stay afloat.
“Some donors dropped in out of the sky today and asked to see these specific artifacts,” Deacy-Quinn says, sipping her coffee. She says that she had to run through the collections department and find them quickly.
“It’s not my job to do tours, but sometimes I have to do the VIP ones,” Deacy-Quinn says. “I want to make sure this museum is always running smoothly.”
Deacy-Quinn walks deeper into the basement, where it begins to get darker. “Don’t get scared-there’s some cool stuff goin’ on back here,” she says in a comforting way. Down a hallway is a room with two apple computers and enough Batman paraphernalia to merit questioning. Yeah, I kind of have a thing for Batman,” explains Deacy-Quinn, slightly embarrassed by her own obsession.
At one of the computers is Deacy-Quinn’s 25 year-old assistant John Holton, who has worked full time at the museum for five years. He is working on piecing together some photographs for the archives.
“The museum is a great place and that has a lot to do with the things that Christa has done here,” Holton says. “She’s really hardcore,” he whispers, as though it were an aside in a play. “She really makes this place a team,” Holton explains. “We all have to work together and she helps to lead us.”
As Deacy-Quinn points at Holton’s screen and asks him a few questions, an alarm starts sounding. “It’s the fire alarm,” she screams. “It’s probably that damn steam valve again.” A fire alarm in a museum with 46,000 artifacts is still a big deal, though, and she yells that everybody needs to get outside. We run through the basement of the museum, Deacy-Quinn in front. The alarm is piercing-like a swarm of locusts buzzing directly in your ears. When we finally reach the outside, Deacy-Quinn takes off her labeled ear plugs made for this occasion.
“I gotta run back in real quick,” she says, amid the protest of her co-workers and the screeching fire truck sirens. “I don’t think everyone is out yet.” As Deacy-Quinn runs back into her beloved Spurlock Museum, presumably to save both lives and artifacts, one can almost see her Batman cape rustling in the wind.