I have recently decided to make a more concerted effort to visit lesser-known (to me at least) Chicago area museums, partly with the goal of finding one I’d like to volunteer with, and partly for adventure purposes. This week, I started with Evanston’s Mitchell Museum of the American Indian.
The Museum is quite interesting and has a lot of character. It is small, with an entire staff of four, and housed on a piece of land that used to be a filling station in the ’50s. After the gas station went out of business, the property was razed and rebuilt as a florist. (If you visit, you’ll notice a funny structure on the front of the building that looks like it was once a greenhouse. It was. The florist lived on the second floor and ran his shop on the first.) Later, it became an art museum for a short while, and then the Mitchell Museum took over the space.
The minimal and modest facilities certainly seem to present the Museum with spatial challenges – small cases are squirreled away in odd corners in some places – but I think this oddness lends it an air of accessibility. It has less the atmosphere of a classic, austere museum where visitors must touch nothing, and more the sense of an old, under-funded, slightly musty library. I felt less like a visitor trying not to break things and more like an explorer who had managed to stumble on an interesting little place. This mood is heightened by “touch stations” around the museum where visitors are invited to pick up and look at traditional Indian games, toys, and touchable artifacts. Although some of these stations can look a bit unkempt, it is because they are most certainly often-used. For example, one of the touch stations is an invitation, complete with directions, to try your hand at weaving on a loom; during my visit it was knotted and matted with tangly attempts at the activity, but attempts, nonetheless.
For all it’s small-budget rough edges, the Mitchell Museum seems to have a thriving relationship with the wider Chicago community. The staff member I talked to said that they have at least two school tours most days, and often more. They also get lots of community and senior citizen groups. School groups are easy because CPS curriculum includes a unit on American Indians. But I also see the general appeal. The museum is quaint, but without fluff – thoroughly well researched and ready to challenge every visitor to think hard about American Indian culture and their own. I recommend making the trip. And if you go, I highly recommend the kachina dolls exhibit – it was my favorite.