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Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015 12:20 am

The Museum Museum, 2515

Address at the reopening of Dickson Mounds



Eleven thousand years ago no human beings yet lived in the central Illinois river valley. The climate was cool and glaciers from the last great ice age still covered parts of the land to the north and the east. When the first people arrived, they hunted the long-extinct elk, white-tailed deer, caribou and giant mastodon.

This and many other discoveries were made this past April when archaeologists surveying the barren wastelands of the river valley came upon a large, abandoned ruin containing what seemed to have once been carefully preserved and presented items, now rotting in their broken cases,  covered in dust and refuse. Using clues from architectural records, the ruin is thought to be either a 20th century or 21st century museum, once used to house and display historical and cultural artifacts. As you can see behind me, the former museum has been restored and is itself now housed as the centerpiece of the new, state of the art, Dickson Mounds Museum Museum.

According to records recovered from within remnants of the original museum, populations here once thrived, with villages expanding and the culture of these peoples extending outward with trade routes eventually reaching every corner of the globe. They exchanged much more than raw materials, tools and supplies – they exchanged ideas.

Again, according to partially excavated exhibits within the museum ruin, at one point, earthen mounds were once built here and towns were established which became centers of political power and ceremonial life. Eventually, the culture of a Europeanized civilization which existed at the time the original Dickson Mounds museum was built seems to have produced large quantities of grain and mined the land for coal. They appear to have had ready access to goods and information from across the continent and around the world. It is not clear how a society with such plenty may have suffered such severe damage to their economy or values that once-sacred sites like the museum were abandoned. Perhaps religious or political upheaval undermined their culture.

Irrespective of all of their technical achievements, however, the people of the river valley in the early 21st century appear at some point to have lost the need for a place like their museum. No longer do they seem to have felt the need for a place to go to help find order in their universe and take stock of the rich history of the physical region. No longer did they find it a necessity within their economic and social structure to celebrate, to commemorate or to consecrate. So the Dickson Mounds Museum, along with several other similar once lovingly maintained structures throughout the region, were seemingly abandoned and left to decay.

Today, in 2515, we still face the challenge of living in balance with the volatile forces of nature. In this valley, archaeologists still excavate thousands of sites where ancient peoples once lived, including the ones that built, maintained and later abandoned the original Dickson Mounds Museum, now housed within the brand new Dickson Mounds Museum Museum, opening here today. The wisdom as well as the folly of these ancestors are ours to learn from. Inadvertently or not, they have left a legacy in the form of the remains of their abandoned museums, which may prove to be as valuable as the natural resources this land once provided, if only as a signpost to help keep us from repeating their mistakes.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.


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