Trashing the past
In “Squabbling over the inheritance,” I asked whether the State of Illinois, which governs a commonwealth rich in everything except good government, is capable of responsible stewardship of its own past.
The evidence is not encouraging. I offer the stories recounted in “The First Century,” an article in the Illinois State Museum’s Living Museum in the summer/fall issue of 2002 that can be read today at http://www.museum.state.il.us/exhibits/museummobile/pdfs/thefirstcentury.pdf
In that piece, then-director Bruce McMillan noted that the State of Illinois commissioned its first geological survey in 1851, appointing Joseph Granville Norwood as state geologist. The enterprise was provided no work space, however, so Norwood’s friend and fellow geologist David Dale Owen agreed to share his facilities in New Harmony, Indiana. That embarrassed Illinois officials sufficiently to order Norwood to move the collections to Springfield – where (you guessed it) they had provided no space either.
The specimens were stored first in the rooms of the Supreme Court in what is today the Old State Capitol, then to the Senate Chamber – then as now a great vacancy -- then (in 1856) to the state arsenal that then stood at 424 North Fifth Street. The state canned its first state geologist for not having published scholarly works based on such work, even though the arsenal space was not heated, which had made it impossible for him to work on specimens during the winter months.
When the Civil War began, the collection was moved again, this time to the Masonic Hall at Fifth and Monroe in spite of warnings that it was not fireproof. Yep -- that building burned in 1871. Fortunately, the son of the new state geologist, Amos Worthen, was sleeping in the offices after long hours at the desk and wakened in time to rescue his father’s library and most of the state’s collection before the flames reached the offices of the Survey – not the first or last time that a dedicated state employee protected the public interest in spite of their cretinous superiors.
In 1875, when the final volume of the Geological Survey of Illinois was completed, the Illinois Legislature determined that everything worth knowing about the geology of the State was known and eliminated the Survey’s budget. The library and geological specimens had been moved to the basement of the Springfield post office where, even after the Survey was disbanded, Amos Worthen continued without pay to care for the collection.
Meanwhile another museum, this one of the state’s natural history had been founded at Illinois State University. In 1877 the state (under Gov. Shelby Cullom, a Springfield man) came to its senses and established a natural history museum to house the specimens of both the geologic survey and the natural history survey at ISU. That museum was allocated space in the new statehouse then a-building.
McMillan tells us what happened next. Because of competition for space, the museum was moved several times. Then,
. . . in 1887, when Worthen was out of town, Secretary of State Henry D. Dement ordered that the museum be dismantled. Some cases were moved to a hallway on the main floor, but most of the materials — especially the geology collections — were dumped haphazardly in the basement of the Capitol. Worthen was emotionally traumatized and simply lost his will to live — he died a year later.