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Thursday, June 28, 2018 12:12 am

Bicentennial and Beyond opens at Illinois State Museum

On display at the Illinois State Museum is a section of a tree trunk collected in 1925 from Murphysboro. A board was driven like a nail through the trunk by the force of a tornado. On March 18, 1925, a powerful tornado crossed three states, from Missouri, across southern Illinois, then on to Indiana. It is still considered one of the most powerful and devastating tornadoes on record, traveling 219 miles, with 695 fatalities over a 3½-hour period.
Photo by Dannyl Dolder, Illinois State Museum


A vibrant and fanciful painting of Carolina parakeets is juxtaposed with a taxidermy mount of this once prolific bird that was hunted to extinction. An original John Deere steel plow appears so simple, yet it broke the prairie soil and transformed agriculture. These are just two examples of objects telling stories in the new exhibition at the Illinois State Museum celebrating the state’s bicentennial. “Bicentennial and Beyond – The Illinois Legacy Collection” opens Friday, June 29, at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.

The exhibition features an eclectic array of objects from the museum’s vast collections that include paintings, decorative art objects representing household life, Native American artifacts, geology and natural history specimens and a “cabinet of curiosities.” The objects are the centerpieces to tell stories about Illinois’ rich history. For example, longtime visitors to the Illinois State Museum may remember the “tornado tree,” a tree trunk with a board driven into the trunk due to the force of a devasting tornado in 1925. Although the exhibition celebrates 200 years of statehood, “Bicentennial and Beyond” also tells stories about Illinois before it was a state. With over 12 million objects to choose among, the ones selected include the most rare, interesting and significant examples. Many rarely seen objects are on display.

Interim museum director Robert Sill with painting by Kevin Veara and a Carolina parakeet mount
Photo by Danny l. Dolder, Illinois State Museum


The Illinois State Museum is collaborating with many other organizations in Springfield to celebrate Illinois’ 200th birthday. Robert Sill is the interim museum director, appointed to this post Jan. 1 following the retirement of Michael Wiant. Of the “Bicentennial and Beyond” exhibition Sill says, “It is an amazing team effort by the entire curatorial and exhibits staff across all the disciplines of the museum.”

Sill is no stranger to collaboration. He was the driving force behind several of the museum’s most successful projects where multiple organizations collaborated to present exhibitions centered on an individual artist or a theme. Examples include “Bearing Witness: The Art of Preston Jackson,” a 2006 citywide art exhibition of work by this beloved artist from Peoria who also has roots in Springfield and “Across the Divide: Reconsidering the Other,” a collaborative exhibition in 2008 commemorating the 1908 Springfield Race Riot.

Sill has collaborated with the Springfield Art Association, Robert Morris Gallery, University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Gallery, Lincoln Land Community College, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and museums outside Springfield to enrich the arts in Springfield.

Betsy Dollar, director of the Springfield Art Association, says, “Working with Bob Sill is always a joy. My first collaboration with Bob and the State Museum was the citywide ‘On and Of Paper’ exhibition. It was a successful show on all levels. We are just starting to explore the options for future collaborations and another citywide exhibition. I know it will be great. Bob brings tremendous knowledge, experience, perspective and excitement to every project.”

Sill has been at the Illinois State Museum for over 31 years where he has worked in the art department. He has curated over 40 exhibitions. Sill says his personal favorite individual curatorial project was the “David Hammons: Hometown” solo exhibition in 1993. Hammons is an internationally celebrated African-American artist who was born in Springfield in 1943.

Although Sill loved to draw as a child, it was a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago in sixth grade where he had his “aha moment” that piqued his interest in art. He recalls coming around a corner and seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic. He says, “It totally blew me away, because I was so familiar with the painting from the popular TV ads for Country Corn Flakes! But, it was during my high school years I started to think seriously about art as a career, and one of my high school teachers helped me get accepted to the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.”

Sill went on to earn a BFA in studio art from Northern Illinois University with a minor in art history and MFA from the University of Minnesota. He saw an ad for an exhibit designer/preparator at the Illinois State Museum and accepted the position in April 1987. He later became Curator of Art and Acting Director of Art and History.

The Illinois State Museum is collaborating with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to present “Tales from the Vault,” a series of programs throughout the bicentennial year. Topics range from Civil War Music to Hair Wreaths and Mourning and will also feature objects from the museums’ collections. The Illinois State Museum has also hosted some of the programs that are part of Springfield’s Bicentennial Town Hall Series. More information about these and other bicentennial programs can be found on the Illinois Bicentennial Coordinating Committee of Springfield’s website, http://www.il200springfield.org/.

Sill says his goal as interim museum director is “to accomplish building partnering relationships within the community and throughout the state and continue to produce a compelling slate of changing exhibitions for the museum.”

Karen Ackerman Witter retired from the State of Illinois in December 2012. She served 14 years as associate director of the Illinois State Museum where she had the pleasure of working with Bob Sill on several collaborative citywide art exhibitions. She, too, remembers the 1966 ad for Country Corn Flakes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKSmj2g8shs.

Opening reception June 29

“Bicentennial and Beyond: The Illinois Legacy Collection” (June 29 – Feb. 3, 2019). The public opening reception is June 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Illinois State Museum, 502 S. Spring Street, Springfield. Enjoy complimentary soft drinks, light appetizers, cash bar and music provided by Virgil Rhodes and his band, Footprints. For more information, go to www.illinoisstatemuseum.org.


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