Claire Enk, Public History and English ’21, is the manager of the Sock Monkey Museum in historic downtown Long Grove, IL, which has over 2,200 vintage sock monkeys on display as well as exhibits about the history of sock monkeys and socks.
How did you hear about and acquire your current position managing the Sock Monkey Museum in Long Grove, IL?
The Sock Monkey Museum is in a neighboring town, and I drove past it as it was preparing to open (there was a large ‘Coming Soon!’ sign on the side of the building). I thought it would be a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor and be involved from the very beginning. It sounded like such a cool place as well! I messaged the museum on Facebook and the owner, Arlene Okun, was impressed with my background in Public History, so we had a phone conversation, met in person, and now I am monkeying around at the museum.
What responsibilities do you have in this role?
As a manager, I do anything that needs to be done! I give tours of the museum, which includes the owner’s collection of over 2,200 vintage sock monkeys and interactive exhibits. I also manage the retail side of the museum. This involves working at the cash register, stocking the shelves, keeping track of inventory, and interacting with customers. I facilitate birthday parties, tour groups, and sock monkey sewing workshops, where I teach people how to sew a sock monkey from a pair of socks. I also train, schedule, and supervise our employees. Managing our Instagram and Facebook accounts is one of my favorite parts of my job! (Follow us @sockmonkeymuseum!) It’s fun to find new ways to promote the sock monkeys and the museum while interacting with other sock monkey accounts online. My responsibilities are always changing as the museum grows.
How did your History and Public History training prepare you for these responsibilities?
My Public History degree showed me that there are so many career options. The Sock Monkey Museum is unique because it embraces so many historical lenses—from gender to cultural to economic and many more. My Public History courses taught me how to present the information I learned from these lenses to the public in an interesting and engaging way. I’m always keeping the audience in mind when I’m giving tours and promoting the museum on social media.
History courses also taught me about the importance of women’s contributions to history and how they are preserved differently than men’s. Sock monkeys were often made by women for their children or grandchildren in the 1940s and 1950s because families did not have enough money to buy toys for their children. Most of the vintage monkeys in our collection have elaborate handmade outfits and the stitching is quite neat, so you can tell they were made with love and care. Sometimes the sock monkeys even have little notes or initials attached to them. My history courses taught me to pay attention to all these particular details because added together they reveal more information about the women who made them. Without these sock monkeys, the women who made them might not have left any trace of their lives for historians to examine.
In HIST 200 I worked on a project about Muncie’s prostitutes from 1870-1910. Since there are not as many artifacts to reference that project changed how I examine women’s history and find evidence to support my theories. During the tours that I give, I talk about how sock monkeys became popular because groups of women were able to make the monkeys together as most working-class families owned the Rockford Red Heel socks used to create them. Sock monkeys were community builders since they gave the women a reason to get together during difficult times. Nobody told me that information and there are no signs about it at the museum, but I used the historical interpretation skills that I learned in History courses to draw that conclusion.
How did your Public History internship at Ball State University Archives and Special Collections prepare you for working in a library and/or a museum?
During my internship, I did a variety of projects, including processing an addition to a collection and researching Ball State’s Multicultural Center on the Digital Media Repository (DMR) for an online exhibit in honor of the new Multicultural Center building. I learned how to conduct research on digital databases, which has been incredibly helpful at the library since I had to learn how to use the databases at the library and am looking up information about books all the time. Working behind the scenes on my laptop at the Archives also made me realize that I prefer to work in an environment where I am interacting directly with the public. I worked with a great group of people at the Archives, and I greatly enjoyed my internship research, but I realized that I like interacting with the public more than I thought I would. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to learn this, so I knew what kinds of jobs to search for after graduation.
What characteristics are important for succeeding in this sort of work?
Since every day is different, flexibility is extremely important. Strong people skills are also a must because I have to be ready to interact with visitors of all ages. One day, we had an 8-year-old’s birthday party happening while the museum was open and a group of about 30 college students in a fraternity came in to look around. I had to balance interacting with the 8-year-olds and their parents, as well as the college students, who all pitched in a few dollars to buy our gigantic $110 sock monkey, which was hilarious.
I think it is also important to be part of the community wherever you work. At the library, I must understand the community that we serve in order to provide the best recommendations that I can. I also am part of a crafting group on Monday mornings before the library opens, which allowed me to meet people from other departments and learn more about the library as a whole. At the museum, I have learned what is important to people who love and are interested in sock monkeys because I interact with so many sock monkey accounts on Instagram and museum visitors. I have grown to love seeing pictures of their collections and hearing about how they acquired their sock monkeys. I even take my own little keychain sock monkey named Tot around with me when I travel to photograph him getting into all kinds of mischief, just like the accounts I follow on Instagram. Two pictures of Tot even hang in the museum!
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I really adore both of my jobs! I am incredibly lucky to work in two positions that make me happy and provide great experiences to the public. It’s always been important to me to have a job that gives back to the community, so having two jobs that do that in their own specific ways is pretty special. Recommending a book to a child that they end up loving is one of my favorite things!
Also, today I worked in the morning at the library while a petting zoo program was happening and then I went straight to the museum to give a tour to 60 kids from a day camp. Every day of work is different, and I have the opportunity to talk to so many interesting people.
What advice do you have for current History and Public History Majors? What do you wish you knew when you were an undergraduate?
Seize every opportunity that comes your way and don’t be afraid to create your own opportunities! My undergraduate experience was a little different because of the pandemic, but as a Public History major at Ball State, I shared my research at a few conferences and participated in many campus organizations. School work and grades are important, but make sure to take full advantage of all the cool and unique opportunities that are open to undergraduate students because those are what you are going to remember and cherish for years to come.
Also, don’t worry so much about planning out your future! The special thing about having a History degree, or any Humanities degree, is that you can choose any profession you want after graduating. If you would have told me while I was an undergraduate that I would be the manager of the Sock Monkey Museum, I would have laughed. I never pictured myself working in a job like this or even being a manager, but it is such a great fit for me. I was hesitant to jump into this role, but I have embraced it and come to love the sock monkey community and my job responsibilities so much. There are so many amazing opportunities and people in the world to connect with, so be open to anything that interests you.