Thursday, May 06, 2010

Chicago History Museum Needs To Rewrite Its Future

Museum Review

Chicago History Museum
Visited May 3, 2010

On Monday, after some business to attend to in downtown Chicago, I made a point of stopping at the Chicago History Museum on my way northward.

It had been quite awhile since I visited the building on North & Clark formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society, at which I had enjoyed some special exhibitions in the past. Although I could have gone for free on the first weekend of May as part of Bank of America's Museums on Us program for customers, I had noted that all Mondays are free at the History Museum, so though I couldn't get there until about 3:00pm and closing time is at 4:30pm, I figured I'd see what I could and perhaps visit again.

But while I enjoyed some of what I saw and valued learning a bit more about various famous events in Chicago's past--such as the Haymarket Square Riot and 1968 Democratic National Convention--90 minutes was plenty and I'm sure glad I didn't pay the normal $14 adult admission fee.

For despite recently rebranding itself to expand its appeal, the Chicago History Museum just feels woefully stuck in the past. Sure it provides some decent information about a number interesting topics, and certainly justifies an occasional free visit, but there really isn't a whole lot to look at that feels truly compelling.

For instance, I have long been intrigued by Chicago having hosted two World Fairs, particularly the Columbian Exposition of 1893, at which a glorious "White City" was constructed on Chicago's south side, but destroyed by fire soon thereafter (the Museum of Science and Industry occupies the only remaining building). This topic is covered at the CHM in a few panels of text and photos, and a couple small artifacts like the "I Will" bust above. In this digital age, why not have a virtual White City created, so that visitors can get a real sense of this magnificent moment in Chicago's past? Or at the very least have a physical model built?

Chicago's relatively short but quite deep history in the realms of architecture, music, theater, television and sports are also covered in rather tepid displays, with almost nothing providing an "Oh, wow!" moment.

Sure, there was a Playboy Bunny outfit--the first service uniform to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office--and a Schwinn bicycle and a couple lesser Frank Lloyd Wright art glass windows and a police helmet from the 1968 DNC riots, but would it be so hard to let visitors try their hand at Bozo Buckets, play old Bally Pinball Machines or even watch a collection of Michael Jordan highlights? Or how about having an interactive Chicago Gangster (and/or Politician) Hall of Shame? And given Chicago's great diversity, how about computerized displays highlight the various neighborhoods and communities, coupled perhaps with a concession stand featuring food of various ethnic origins?

Theoretically, I have no problem with history being primarily something that should be read about, but with half the world now able to access Wikipedia and the entire Web on their cell phones, and therefore capable of instantly learning far more about any subject covered in museum display text without reading any of it, the Chicago History Museum really has to figure out how to "engage" 21st century visitors.

There are currently two new exhibitions going on; one is a roomful of nothingness about the Lincoln Park area while the other, a multimedia presentation called My Chinatown, sounded promising but runs every 18 minutes with no indication of exact start times, so unless you happen to be at the auditorium doors at just the right moment, you can't see it (which I didn't).

The most famous relic in the museum's collection--Abraham Lincoln's death bed--is currently inaccessible. All the more reason not to pay $14.

I did enjoy seeing what an old 'L' car looked like, learning a bit about Fort Dearborn and discovering why Chicago is so named (it comes from an Indian word meaning wild onion).

But my favorite piece of previously unbeknownst trivia was that the birth control pill was patented and first marketed by Searle, in my hometown of Skokie.

Interestingly, this bit of information was paired with a panel about another Chicago scientific breakthrough: the first nuclear chain reaction--created by Enrico Fermi and others at the University of Chicago in 1942-- which made the atomic bomb possible.

Tellingly, with deference to the significant amount of knowledge it can impart to visitors of all ages and the value of free admission Mondays, the Chicago History Museum really needs to be newly conceived. For right now, on an acute enjoyment level, it's a bit of a bomb.

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