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Thursday, March 23, 2017 12:10 am

Museum comeback

Illinois State Museum reopens with a plan to revitalize

Kids participating in Super Saturday activities at the Illinois State Museum.


The Illinois State Museum, founded in 1877, reopened its doors on July 2, 2016, after being closed for nine months due to budget cuts at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The closing – which extended to the entire Illinois State Museum system, including Dickson Mounds in Lewiston and the Lockport Gallery, along with the museum proper and Research and Collection Center, both in Springfield – was unpopular with the public, gaining attention from both traditional and social media as well as inspiring passionate protest demonstrations leading up to the closure. In contrast, the reopening has been a relatively quiet affair.

Walking through the museum itself, it mostly feels as though it never closed. Standbys such as the large-scale nature dioramas of lifelike tableaus featuring spectacular taxidermy, the perennial “People of the Plains” exhibit, the bones of the giant sloth – all are here, unchanged. The art gallery space on the second floor is bursting with color and energy thanks to its current exhibit, “Just Good Art: The Chuck Thurow Gift” (see “State Museum showcases contemporary art,” March 2, 2017, at illinoistimes.com).

According to Michael Wiant, interim director of the museum as well as longtime director of Dickson Mounds, more than120,000 people have visited the museum system properties combined since they opened back up. The museum declined to offer pre-closure attendance figures for comparison. “Our school group reservations for the months of April and May are approaching what we have done in the past,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of work to improve attendance. Programs – especially family-oriented, hands-on experiences, presentations and field trips – have long accounted for a steadily increasing proportion of on-site attendance.” Wiant describes efforts toward increasing the diversity and frequency of programs since reopening in July. For example, this year’s monthly Super Saturday programs, featuring special, free activities for children between three and eight years old, have attracted more than 200 people to each event and in March, the museum’s lunchtime brown bag seminars have attracted more than 60 people. “While threshold attendance has long been the standard to measure museum performance,” said Wiant, “there are better measures, especially in a world of increasing internet connection.”

A group tours the Decorative Arts range at the ISM Research and Collections Center


For example, the Illinois State Museum loans objects to other institutions for exhibitions – objects from the museum’s collection are on view in the ISM system and other venues across the country, including the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum and soon the Smithsonian Museum. “Parts of the collection are often on loan to other institutions for study and scholars from the United States and elsewhere often travel to the Research and Collections Center to conduct research,” Wiant added. The museum’s website and other digital platforms received more than one million unique visits in 2016.

One obvious difference in the museum since reopening is the institution of a $5 entry fee (entry used to be free of charge). Wiant says the response to the fee has been positive. “Two individuals in the first month of operation each purchased 100 tickets. They spent $500 apiece and offered those tickets to the next 100 people who came to the door,” he said, noting that other comments have been positive, suggesting that patrons appreciate the value of what the fees pay for. As for school groups visiting the premises, all students are free of charge, with the museum also accommodating a certain number of chaperones. “Effectively, school groups and their teachers continue to enter the museum at no charge,” says Wiant.

Upcoming exhibits
Of course, the best way to get people in the door is to provide outstanding content which people want to see. The main art gallery at the Illinois State Museum has long been a changing gallery. In addition to the main art gallery, the museum also has a small gallery with the purpose of displaying lesser-seen works from the museum’s holdings. The gallery will feature the work of Osaka-born, Chicago-based artist Michiko Itatani, in an exhibit kicking off with a Museum Society reception on Thursday, March 23. Other upcoming programs include an acoustic concert series to be held at the museum on the third Thursday of each month beginning in May, which is being developed by musician-producer Chris Vallillo, who has produced the Hickory Ridge concert series at Dickson Mounds for two decades.

A group tours the Zoology range at the ISM Research and Collections Center


Bicentennial plans

On a larger scale, plans are in the works for a multiplatform exhibit celebrating the Illinois bicentennial in 2018. “We have two plans,” explained Wiant. “One will be a virtual exhibit posted on the web and available to anyone with web access. We won’t limit ourselves to just the past 200 years because the museum’s collection is a chronicle of Illinois as a place [as opposed to just as a state].” The widening of scope will allow the exhibit to include fossil records, Native American history and early American settlement, areas all well-represented by the museum’s collections. “This will serve two purposes,” Wiant said. “It both celebrates the place and it brings the breadth and depth of our collection to the attention of the public.” The objects included in the online exhibit will also be physically on display in the museum.

Positions available
Within the past few weeks, the museum posted job listings for the first new positions since reopening, including curators in decorative arts, history and education as well as a librarian and office assistant for the museum. The Research and Collections Center (RCC) is seeking an anthropology curator. Despite losing several prominent employees during the period of closing, there is still a core of curators who manage the RCC. Current work there falls into the broad categories of collection management, providing access to collections through loans to other institutions and research undertaken by curators. “We are in the process of digitizing collection data, which is the first step in providing more access to collection information to the public,” Wiant explains. “At the same time, we are improving housing of the collection to meet contemporary standards.” Much of this work is being done by volunteers under the supervision of museum staff. The RCC’s curator of botany, Dr. Hong Qian, has recently submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to study invasive plants.

Dickson Mounds and Lockport Gallery
Since reopening in July, Dickson Mounds in Lewiston (about an hour’s trip north of Springfield on I-97) reintroduced programming including the popular Artifact Identification Day, during which regular citizens can bring in found objects for identification. On March 18 the facility hosted a “spring gathering,” described by Wiant as a celebration of Native American life in the Illinois River valley. George Godfrey of the Illinois Natural History survey spoke about the removal of the Potawatomi in 1838, providing an historical dimension to the proceedings. A group called “The Spirit of the Rainbow Singers” performed, bringing a large traditional drum and singing songs related to the Northern Plains. “Many people come in dance regalia and it’s an extraordinary opportunity for the public to witness and be a part of a traditional Native American ceremony,” said Wiant.

Botany curator Dr. Hong Qian addresses a group during a tour of the Research and Collections Center.


Dickson Mounds is situated in what has been described as an underserved area for cultural opportunities and one program Wiant is particularly proud of addresses this deficit directly. “We have a program there we call Tot Time which is designed for really young ones who are still homebound with parents or caregivers,” Wiant said. “Once a month we bring them to the museum for a program designed for their age level – and it has turned out to be extraordinarily popular. There was a program on mastodons, for example, where we had large bones that kids could touch and so on. It’s been an effort to address a part of the community that is not generally served in this capacity and they have welcomed it.”

The Lockport Gallery (located 30 miles southwest of Chicago) was reopened on Sept. 24, 2016, and is functioning much the way it always had, changing exhibitions of art created by past and contemporary Illinois artists and artisans, some from the museum’s collection, some from elsewhere. “It is a venue for compilations that we put together here [in Springfield] and move there for review,” Wiant said. “We also offer a series of educational programs through the gallery.”
Museum store
The museum store, which was run by the Museum Society for many years and which specialized in offering works by Illinois artisans for sale, is the most glaring absence in the current version of the museum, with the space it once occupied nearly empty. Wiant says that there are plans to eventually find a way to replace the museum store but it is too early to provide many details. “We are looking at past performance [of the museum store] and we’re going to try to build on the strengths of that operation.” In the meantime, shelving has been vacated in order to adapt that part of the lobby to other uses until a plan for a new museum store are in place. “It has turned out to be a welcome addition – we have a museum use policy which allows public groups to rent the space. We have used it on a variety of occasions and have many others scheduled. It provides a unique space in the museum for groups to gather and that has been serving us very well.”

An ISM volunteer assists children with an art activity during a family event


As for the now-defunct Illinois Artisans Program which once provided art and craft works to the museum store, Wiant says, “We have not lost contact with the artisans who were part of that enterprise for so many years and it is the subject of considerable thought. The retail world has changed a lot in a relatively short period of time and so we’re thinking about not only the physical presence of objects made by Illinois artisans but other ways by which we may draw attention, through the museum, to those artists. Right now, we’re contemplating what a future-looking artisans program would be like.”

One adverse result of the nine-month closure of the museum was the highly pulbicized suspension of the venerable institution’s national accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. According to the alliance’s website, accreditation “increases [a] museum’s credibility and value to funders, policy makers, insurers, community and peers. Accreditation is a powerful tool to leverage change and helps facilitate loans between institutions.” As such, revocation of this status can prove devastating to an institution’s ability to flourish.

Wiant said that steps are being taken to reaffirm the ISM as a top-quality museum. “We submitted a reaccreditation document on Feb. 1,” said Wiant. The document consists of museum policies and strategic plans going forward, among other requirements. The alliance will pick two individuals who represent museums from the United States to visit the museum at some point this coming summer whose job will be to review the documents and conduct onsite examinations at all three of the ISM system’s public locations. Afterwards they will deliberate on their findings. “I suspect sometime before the end of the year we’ll have the results of their review,” Wiant said.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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