I recently had a chance to visit the Chicago History Museum, a place I had visited several times as a kid but hadn’t been to in at least 15 years. Here are a few thoughts about the museum:
1. The best exhibit, in my opinion, is the dioramas of key moments in Chicago’s history. While these are now decades old, they still look quite good and effectively tell the story of Chicago’s early years. Here is the classic diorama of the 1871 Chicago Fire:
2. The museum has some interesting historical artifacts, ranging from Native American items to modern-day Chicago neighborhoods. My favorite: the Pioneer locomotive which made the first run on the Galena & Chicago Union railroad (the first railroad running out of Chicago and currently the Union Pacific West line in Metra nomenclature) in 1849:
3. Moving beyond my favorites, I think there is a larger issue with the museum: who is supposed to be its target audience? School kids? Tourists? Local residents? This drives another decision: how much detail should the museum present? I think there is a surprising lack of detail about major events which seems particularly appalling since Chicago is a world class city and urban sociologists still talk about (or perhaps joke about) Chicago being the quintessential American city. The second floor covers more modern Chicago history but it does this very quickly and without much context for each event/issue. For some of these modern topics, say transportation or Chicago neighborhoods or suburbanization, you could fill whole museum rooms and really inform the public about what happened and what it means for the future.
4. I also noticed that there is a very little in the museum about recent politicians (say, since the early 1900s). No commentary on the two Daleys and Harold Washington? I assume part of this might be driven by the fact that the Daleys are still around but there is a lot of potential material that could be covered here. For example, there is a small display about the 1968 Democratic Convention and a clip from a History Channel documentary on the subject but there is very little commentary on it. The lack of political material is quite noticeable when talking about the history of a city with powerful (and sometimes problematic) politicians.
5. The lobby of the museum is pleasingly eccentric. If I remember correctly, the museum used to a grand staircase in the lobby which gave it a very traditional look. But here is what one of the lobby looks like now:
Overall, the Chicago History Museum has some good moments but I don’t think it lives up to the world-class standards of Chicago. When the best exhibit consists of decades-old dioramas, there is room for improvement. In a city known for its museums, culture, and history as well being a center for urban study, the museum could be so much more.