The next installment of my quest to explore Chicago’s museums takes us to Jane Addams’ Hull House. I visited yesterday and was entirely impressed. It’s an historic house museum, so it’s fairly small, but they make beautiful and innovative work of their space.
I have to admit that most small historic house museums I’ve visited have a difficult time integrating a wider historical and sociological story into the museum. Often I come away from these museums thinking, “Okay, this is where Suchandsuch lived. One thing happened here.” I always enjoy these houses, but I usually get a strong sense of disconnection from the present. We live in a society where the most common complaint of both the student and the general citizen who doesn’t like history is, “That stuff happened a long time ago. What does it have to do with me?” So for me, a history buff and a museum educator, to feel disconnected from the present at these museums means they are highly likely to lose the general citizen.
Hull House, however, has done an impressive job of blending the site’s history with the full legacy of Chicago and the city’s current state. Some of the rooms are entirely about the history of the house, but the labels throughout the museum continuously bring up comparative issues between the city then and now.
In addition to the mood of the labels, the curators have set aside rooms for modern causes and issues that have been around since Hull House was founded. One room maps the sociological demographics of the neighborhood over history. Another room is dedicated to Arts Education. Pictures of the city’s modern arts educators have been printed on the walls with their ideas on the issue. There are laminated cards that explain how to play different observation and sensory-enhancing games. A working printing press sits in the corner, waiting for another class to create their own carved designs, some of which decorate a box of pre-addressed postcards that are ready for visitors to sign and mail them to Arnie Duncan in support of greater arts education funding.
Besides Hull House’s skillful integration of history with the present, it also just has some cool museum features and displays. One room houses a scale model of the complete Hull House settlement complex as well as a short film that records the length of Halstead Street in 1934 – from the farmland at the southmost end, all the way through the bustling city. I particularly liked the film because it is projected onto a 2’x2′ section of window pane, painted white. Labels to exhibits are placed in interesting, welcoming locations – printed on sheet music, sitting on a music stand, on a piece of cloth slung over a clothes rack in Ms. Addams’ room, and painted as dance steps on the floor of the Arts Education room. (I saw something called the “Alternative Labeling Project” mentioned; I’ll have to look this up.)
My favorite surprise, however, was the Sonic Landscape room. In one corner of a larger room, you come to a heavy curtain that looks like someplace visitors aren’t allowed to go. But there is a small sign that invites you to enter and hear the sounds of Halstead street around the turn of the century. If you pull back the curtain and step inside, you enter an empty, sun-filled room that looks out on Halstead street from three floor-to-ceiling windows. A motion sensor turns on an audio track, which the labels in the room explain is a compilation of many different period recordings that curators have put together to sound like the bustling neighborhood around Hull House. I found it quite mesmerizing.
In short, Hull House is definitely worth a visit.