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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2005 02:48 am

By hook and by Crook

State Museum found a champion in 1906

Dr. Alja Robinson Crook, curator of the Illinois State Museum

I don’t know for sure whether history repeats itself, but I do know this: What goes around comes around.

Nearly 100 years ago, on Nov. 27, 1907, Professor Alja Robinson Crook, curator of the Illinois State Museum, addressed the Springfield Ad Men’s Club at the group’s home in the Ferguson Building at Sixth and Monroe streets. After “a delicious turkey dinner,” Crook spoke on “The Museum and Its Relation to the Welfare of Springfield.”

The Springfield News gave this account of Crook’s speech: “He urged a great appreciation on the part of the people of the city for the value of the institution and emphasized in a forcible way the desirability of making it all that a museum should be. He pointed out that such a museum, backed by the finances of the state, and the encouragement of Springfield, would be immensely valuable from a dollars-and-sense standpoint because it would attract thousands of visitors from all over Illinois every year.”

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

Believe it or not, there are other fine museums in the city of Springfield besides the arriviste Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, not the least of which is the Illinois State Museum, created by an act of the Legislature in 1877. It is one of the most respected and professionally sound of the state’s institutions and has been located in the Capitol complex since the very beginning of its existence.

Unlike the fledgling presidential museum, which has never known financial hardship, a change of administration, or, indeed, any adversity whatsoever, the Illinois State Museum has weathered many tough struggles in its nearly 130-year history of research, collection, and exhibition of its rare and valuable holdings.

Among the most important figures in the history of the institution is A.R. Crook (1864-1930), an intellectual heavyweight who, unlike his predecessors, was adept at winning friends and influencing the right people in many spheres of society. He assumed curatorship of the museum when it was a haphazard, obscure, and neglected ward of the state and for 24 years shepherded it on the path of growth, prosperity, and prominence.

Alja Crook (the name Alja was a fusion of the initials of President Lincoln and Vice President Andrew Johnson) was born to devoutly religious parents at Circleville, Ohio, on June 17, 1864. For a period of several years during his youth, the family lived in Jacksonville, Ill., before returning to Ohio, where Crook graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University (his father, the Rev. Isaac Crook, was its president). He then traveled and studied extensively in Europe before earning his doctorate in geology from the University of Munich in 1892. For a year he was on the faculty of Wheaton College as a professor of natural history, then spent 14 years as a member of the faculty of Northwestern University as a professor of mineralogy. Gov. Charles S. Deneen appointed him curator of the Illinois State Museum, and he assumed the position on Sept. 15, 1906, at a time when the impoverished museum, having been evicted from the Capitol Building, was housed in one second-floor room of the State Arsenal, across the street.

Immediately the socially skillful Crook began to build bridges, both personal and professional, in Springfield and around the state. Here he organized and was the first president of the Mid-Day Luncheon Club, which grew from a small group of men who went for long walks together and promised not to “talk shop.” He established a free lecture course for the citizens of Springfield, importing a guest lecturer or presenting the program himself. He assumed the secretaryship of the American Association of Museums and was instrumental in the formation of the Illinois State Academy of Science, which he served as secretary and editor, president and librarian. Crook saw to it that as the collections of the museum grew, so did public interest in the welfare of the institution.

It is almost impossible to overstate Crook’s importance to the Illinois State Museum. In 1909, he began to arrange meetings with the heads of various state agencies to discuss mutually beneficial legislative action. He succeeded in having the museum recognized as a division of government (then under the Department of Registration and Education) and served on a committee that prepared a bill to obtain appropriations for the construction of the Centennial (now Howlett) Building. The Illinois State Museum moved to the Centennial Building in 1923, which was its home until 1962.

Crook was a deeply religious man for whom the study of science and religious belief were not necessarily mutually exclusive disciplines. He was a forward-thinking pragmatist whose philosophy of the museum experience was one of accessibility.

In 1918, Crook wrote in a paper he titled “A Definition of a State Museum”: “A State Museum is . . . a repository of ideas and deeds rather than simply of objects. Instead of being a collection of things it is a collection of thoughts.”

Terry Zeller reported in a 1991 paper that Crook decried “the needless regulation that decreased the usefulness of many museums” and further argued that “to the common citizen it often seems that the museum is maintained for the staff or for the collections, rather than for the public. Why not make the museum as accessible as a dry goods store?”

Milton Thompson, who authored a history of the museum, wrote: “The Illinois State Museum was fortunate to have had fine, studious, responsible caretakers during those early years of uncertainty, and it was blessed beyond realization to have Dr. A.R. Crook as its leader at the time of its awakening.”

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