Honoring the Legacies of Michigan Women
In a beautiful yellow Victorian house on West Malcolm X Street in Lansing is stored the history of hundreds of Michigan women who have changed the state, the country and the world for the better. Proudly sharing their stories is a woman who is not only preserving history, but making it as well. Emily Fijol is the executive director of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame, and she works daily to inspire and celebrate women.
Fijol entered college with a vision for her life as a doctor before discovering her true passion in an introductory art history class that would change her career path dramatically.
“I started out pre-med in college and it really wasn’t for me – really not for me,” Fijol joked. “but I took an art history class and everything changed. I was ready to applaud at the end of every class. I really found myself and I just knew it, so I called my dad and told him I was switching majors and there was just silence before he said, ‘you’re never going to get a job are you?’ but I didn’t care; I just went for it. I had some great internships in undergrad, but you can’t get a job in an art museum with just an undergraduate degree, so I really had to think about what I wanted. I really loved teaching so it was a natural fit.”
Fijol received her master’s degree in Museum Education from George Washington University, where she merged her passion for art history with her love of education. Fijol was able to find a way to channel her drive and excitement for her field of study into strengthening and improving the museum experience.
“Museum education is about making sure the visitor experience is the best it can be. It’s about making everything as accessible and relatable as possible. I am the advocate for the visitor. I try to look at things and see how they would see it and figure out what can make it better,” Fijol said. “People come to museums for different reasons, but it is my job to figure out how to make what we are trying to share with them work for everyone from the family to the scholar.”
“I talk every day about amazing women who did and are doing amazing things and I am so inspired and motivated by that.”
After receiving her degree, Fijol had a unique opportunity to hold numerous positions with museums around the country, as her husband’s job required frequent relocation. But Fijol made the best of each move and worked to grow, build and rebuild with each new position to become an even greater advocate for museum visitors of all kinds.
“I held a few positions in DC in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the International Spy Museum and the Museum of Treasures in the National Building. From there, we moved to Phoenix where I was the manager of educational programming for the Arizona Science Center. After that we moved to New Mexico where I served as the Education Coordinator for Explora. While I was there, I was part of a team that oversaw the opening of a 96,000 square foot annex. All of those experiences gave me new insight into what museums offer to a community,” Fijol said.
For Fijol, its more than just making the experience unique and exciting, she truly enjoys connecting and sharing with visitors. She admits that watching guests come alive and find inspiration within the museum is one of her favorite parts of the job.
“I love working with visitors. I want to know what interests them and share with them what interests me, and we can find those points of connection. What I really love about my job is that there is this teaching aspect that is really inspiring. I love that you can look at an artifact and learn so much from it, just from looking at it. I think that has great power. You can find things in any museum that make you think critically and analyze what you are seeing, not just what is being said to you,” Fijol said.
Fijol believes that museums have a unique ability to bring families and communities together. She aims to create a space that makes everyone feel welcome, and that allows guests of all kinds to find inspiration and empowerment during their visit.
“I think in some cases it can be a struggle. If people don’t feel like they belong in a museum they are less likely to go to one. I remember at the science center, moms would bring their kids in to visit, but instead of participating in an activity they would say ‘oh I’m just not good at this.’ but I wanted everyone to know that ‘yes, yes you are, let’s learn together.’ that is what makes these spaces so great,” said Fijol.
“I remember doing cow eye dissections, and even though I had already established that medical stuff was not my thing, I loved doing those dissections because you could see people start to understand. You could see them start to figure out how their own eyes worked, and that was a powerful thing to see. To see their delight at grasping a new concept and seeing how they could relate to it personally, that made it so exciting.”
When Fijol and her family moved to Michigan, she set out on a mission to find a new role with a local museum, but what she didn’t expect was to find a position that would change her so deeply as a person. Fijol started as the assistant director at the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame, but found her natural fit within the organization after becoming the executive director.
“I am so passionate about our mission. I mean, I am a woman so that works,” Fijol joked. “but this is truly one of the most inspiring places I have ever worked. The people are so involved here because we all believe in it. We are dedicated and passionate and we have amazing stories about amazing women to share. I can’t get away from the word inspiration; I just can’t say it enough. You can be having a terrible day and read one of these women’s stories and it all just turns around. I always say, if you can see one you can be one.”
And Fijol is the best representation of turning inspiration into action. She works tirelessly for the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame and also serves as president of the Michigan Museum Association. She has made it her personal mission to protect and promote Michigan women’s amazing history and to ensure that generations from now, these women and all who come after them (including her, if we have anything to say about it), will still be celebrated.
“There are just under 300 inductees and I can recognize all of them by name and probably tell you the stories of about half. I still learn something new every day,” Fijol said. “personally, I feel like all these women are mentors. I’ve felt a shift in myself. I have always loved what I did, but I have seen myself grow into more of a leader.”
Fijol is not only leading the next generation of Michigan women, she is also inspiring them to reach higher, push farther and dream bigger so that they can find their place in the hall of fame, starting with her sweet three-year-old daughter.
“I have a small child and it’s not always convenient to have obligations that take me away from her, but it is important as a leader. My daughter is going to learn so much from watching me. She’s going to be a great leader. She’s going to know where her roots are but not be afraid to reach for whatever she wants. I have the tools to inspire her, all women do. We can inspire our daughters and that is what these women have done,” Fijol said.
Fijol adds that it’s not just about what makes Michigan women great, it’s about what makes all of us great.
“what I really want is for people to leave here inspired,” Fijol said. “Michigan women have done amazing things and continue to do amazing things, and I just want everyone to take these stories and make one of their own.”