Historical Society museum reopens

  • By LAURA KWEREL
  • Medill News Service
  • October 03, 2006 @ 4:15 AM
The former Chicago Historical Society, closed since December 2005 for renovations, has re-opened with a new name and freshly overhauled exhibits and galleries.

Timed to coincide with the organization's 150th anniversary year, the brighter, more lively Chicago History Museum opened over the weekend with a reconfigured lobby and a permanent history exhibit area more than twice the size of the original. The unveiling of the $27.8 million renovation came with free performances by groups including Second City, the Trinity Irish Dancers and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

The History Museum has undergone numerous transformations since its founding in 1856. Completely destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it moved to its current location at 1601 N. Clark St. in In the 1970s and 1980s, the museum expanded from 100,000 square feet to its current 235,000 square feet. This time, said Russell Lewis, the Museum's executive vice president and chief historian, the goal was not to increase floor space but to engage visitors in a more personal way.

"Prior to this [renovation] I think people thought this was a fairly staid place," he said. "It just wasn't that accessible." For example, he said, the looming staircase in the building's old lobby bisected the space and ushered visitors away from the lobby's numerous displays.

Now, an electric blue, custom-painted 1978 Chevy Monte Carlo greets visitors in the revamped lobby along with bright, blinking gas station sign from the 1950s and a Calder-like mobile of Chicago street signs dangling from the ceiling. A large photograph of a scene from Chicago's 1933 World's Fair covers the left wall. "We wanted the space to be filled with light and activity, to be reminiscent of when you walk down the street at night," said Julie Nauman, a graphic designer who worked on the new lobby.

Many museums across the country have updated their exhibits to reach visitors on a more visceral level, and the new Chicago History Museum follows that trend. Multimedia presentations, videos, and a new audio podcast tour are all part of the Museum's efforts to keep up with the latest media technology. "We found that most people think history is boring, but that's because it's often presented that way," said Lewis.

Hands-on displays such a colorful Chicago hot dog that invites children to climb up and pile on all its toppings will connect with younger audiences. But more low-tech exhibits also have their place in the new museum. Located near the entrance of the new permanent exhibit area is Chicago's first working elevated train car, "L Car No. 1" from 1892. Lewis believes visitors will like the car because they will walk inside and immediately feel the link with Chicago's current CTA trains. "They can say, 'Woa, these seats were uncomfortable back then too?'" he said. "I think it's a wonderful thing to realize that not everything has changed."

But museum curators caution that however entertaining the medium, learning history serves a serious purpose. "It's vital for people to connect with the history of Chicago," said Jill Grannan, a curator for the Museum. "We want people to know that they are a part of history now."

OPTIONAL SIDEBAR;

Following is a sampling of special performances being offered during the Chicago History Museum's opening weekend: --9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m Saturday: American Indian Center, Mexican Folkloric Dance Company, Trinity Irish Dance Dancers and Second City. --Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday: Reggio McLaughlin and the Human Rhythm Project, Music House, Inc., and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Admission is free. Call 312-642-4600 for complete details.

Regular Museum Hours: 9:30 a.m, to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday-Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. noon to 5 p.m .Sunday. Suggested admission $12 adult, free for children 12 and under. Free on Monday. 312-642-4600.

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