Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Freely Worthwhile Visit of Historical Significance

Museum Recap

Chicago History Museum
Visited February 9, 2013
Special Exhibits seen:
Shalom Chicago; Vivian Maier's Chicago

I love Chicago and relish exploring its rich history, so one might assume that I’m a big fan of the Chicago History Museum (formerly known at the Chicago Historical Society).

Yes and no.

I appreciate the CHM’s raison d’ĂȘtre and there certainly is a whole lot to learn and explore within its halls, whether you are a longstanding local or a first-time visitor to Chicago. But as I expressed in this 2010 review, the history museum could really use a good deal of modernization. I recommend much more in the way of interactive exhibits and videos offering user-friendly insights on topics such as The Great Chicago Fire, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago architecture, Al Capone, the Blues, Michael Jordan, Chicago-style pizza and more.

As such, I’d be hard-pressed to suggest that—unless there’s a terrific temporary exhibition—a visit to the Chicago History Museum is worth its standard $14 adult admission charge.

But especially if you can take advantage of Free Admission for Illinois Residents through the end of February, as well as on Monday, March 4—the CHM is also part of Bank of America’s Museums on Us program, offering free admission for B of A customers the first full weekend of every month—I think you might enjoy checking out a couple of nice temporary exhibits, as well as parts of the permanent collection. Like I did last Saturday.

Shalom Chicago is an exhibit that sheds light on the history of Jewish people and communities in Chicago, explaining how initially German Jews came to the city in the late 19th century, followed by considerably larger numbers of Eastern European Jews.

The exhibit primarily focuses on a handful of prominent Jewish residents, including those who founded notable synogogues and stores. A short film on Bessie Abramowitz, a button sewer who led a garment workers strike in 1910, was particularly interesting.

Overall, Shalom Chicago is solid, but short of spectacular or terrifically insightful. I was expecting it to provide more depth about topics such as the Maxwell Street market and explain when and why Jews migrated from the West Side to Rogers Park to Skokie and suburbs beyond.

As such, it was beneficial to partake of a docent-led tour of the exhibit, who was able to provide information beyond that which was posted on the display panels. (Check with the museum about tour schedules.)

Also well worth a look as part of a free visit—and like Shalom Chicago, running through the Summer—is a creatively-designed exhibit on a photographer named Vivian Maier.

As opposed to most photography exhibits that display same-size framed photos, Vivian Maier’s Chicago had several panels of oversized square pictures, complemented by film-roll-like sequences of Maier’s photo series—shown little bigger than Polaroid size—wrapping around the gallery walls.

As evidenced by many of the show’s best pictures, Maier—an amateur
street photographer who pursued her passion around work as a nanny—had a real gift for capturing everyday people in a way that conveyed universal scenarios and emotions.

You can learn more about the exhibit here—which includes a link to see a selection of Maier’s photos—but while the single-gallery display isn’t extensive enough to justify paying the museum’s full admission, the content and curation of Vivian Maier’s Chicago does suggest it be seen in person. 

If you go, the CHM’s permanent collection is worth a walkthrough. The displays don’t seem much altered or augmented since my visit nearly 3 years ago, but you are again able to see the bed upon which Abraham Lincoln died.

Other Abe artifacts, including a life mask, can also be seen along with a gallery called Lincoln’s Chicago.

On March 16, a new temporary exhibit called Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair will open at the Chicago History Museum.

Perhaps if I can arrange to see it on a Free Day, I will.

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