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Chicago History Museum

This past President’s Day I visited the Chicago History Museum for the first time. I went because I had the day off, not thinking about the fact that all of CPS had the day off as well – It turned out to be packed with school kids and their mothers who decided to take advantage of the holiday. Apparently the Chicago History Museum gets quite excited about the history of our nation’s presidents. Admission was free, Abe and Mary Lincoln reenactors roamed the main entrance hall, and I even got to listen to a US Navy brass band play patriotic tunes. There were many exciting events scheduled throughout the day, culminating in a “Meet the Lincolns” session.

Aside from the festivities, I have a lot of good things to say about the History Museum. They currently have an exhibit up about the fashion designer Charles James that not only has some beautiful dresses on display, but also includes touchable dress mannequins that invite visitors to examine the layers, pattern pieces, and overall construction of the dresses. It’s a refreshingly tactile exhibit for one that could easily be eyes-only.

Another small room on the first floor – a permanent gallery – houses a collection of dioramas. I can hear some of you thinking, “dusty dioramas in a history museum?… I’d rather eat a bug.” But I was surprised to find that the miniature settings of different periods in Chicago are really interesting to look at. They range from trappers and traders sitting in a house with American Indians, to tall ships sailing in from the Lake, to a reconstruction of the Great White City during the Columbian Exposition. All of the models sit behind glass and fool the eye by using backgrounds with deep perspectives. They look much bigger than they really are, but still hold the fascination of a doll house. Each diorama is also accompanied by well-written, to-the-point labels in both English and Spanish, and occasionally an audio button that plays relevant music or sounds.

However, my favorite exhibit, by far, was Out in Chicago, a look at historical and contemporary LGBT culture in Chicago. The temporary exhibit, open through the end of this month, takes an impressively broad look at the climate for gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people through Chicago’s history, from men who chose to dress like women around the turn of the century to what it’s like to grow up as a LGBT person on the South Side of Chicago today. The exhibit makes compelling use of multimedia as well. Visitors encounter a guide upon entering every gallery – a person introducing the topic on a sideways-turned flat screen tv. One gallery features a “living room” area where visitors can sit on an overstuffed sofa to watch short interviews with different members of Chicago’s current LGBT community about their “Chicago experience.” The overall exhibit was very open-minded and relevant for a history museum. I was also excited to find that the exhibit did a wonderful job of balancing the content and design between child and adult. Older kids – maybe 8 or 9 and up – could find ways to engage with this exhibit.

The only part of the museum that I was not as impressed with was the main hall of galleries. Their permanent exhibits were much more kid-friendly and hand-on, but I found them to be organized confusingly. Jumping around between exhibit to exhibit was a bit jarring and disjointed.

Overall, the Chicago History Museum seems like a fairly good place to take kids, and I would highly recommend getting out there to see the Out in Chicago exhibit before March 26th.

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About Me

I'm an alternative educator interested in revolutionizing the role that museums and community arts non-profits play in the formal education system. If you'd like to learn more, click on my picture!

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