Chicago History Museum Arrives after One Hundred Fifty Years

Entry mural and street signs mobile

After 150 years the Chicago Historical Society has had a 'makeover' and is now known as The Chicago Historical Museum. A Gala dinner on September 29, 2006, will launch a celebratory year. William M. Daley is chairing the black tie event and all proceeds from the gala will benefit the Museum. Many activities follow and include: opening weekend, September 30 and October 1; Com Ed Powers Play Chicago with 93 XRT (the kickoff of a year long concert series partnering The Chicago Historical Museum, 93XRT and Buddy Guy), September 30; Neighborhood Open House, October 5; and an Educator and Museum Open House, October 10.

The first of the community rotating exhibits

Chicagoans who remember the Chicago Historical Society as small, cozy and a bit dark will find a new look and feel at the Chicago Historical Museum. It is interactive and energetic. Displays are organized by theme. They emphasize dates less than topic and reach viewers on a more personal level. The expansion from 6,000 to 16,000 square feet allows for an expanded number of displays.

The first floor displays the Dioramas. This was my favorite part of the old Historical Society.

Christian Dior Ball gown for Ruth Page (photo-Chicago History Museum)

They have been on display since first installed in 1932. One had to strain to see them because the lighting was poor, but since they reflected key moments in the city's first century, they said 'Chicago' to me. Their new incarnation is 'Imagining Chicago: The Dioramas'. In the current display, they are lower and easier to see, brighter, and identified by signs in English and Spanish, and have push buttons that bring forth stories.

'Sensing Chicago' is new and devoted to children and adults that want to feel like children. Here one can utilize a 'smell' map to explore scenes from Chicago history or 'see' themselves in a scene from the past or 'touch' objects from the past including riding a high-wheeled bicycle or watch a White Sox game sitting on seats from old Comiskey Park. 'Taste' was more dependent on imagination but 'hear' was wonderful. Stepping on multi-colored circles will trigger sounds that coordinate with images from Chicago's history, i.e. the Great Chicago Fire, the Union Stock Yard and a Southside Jazz Band.

Chicago's first elevated train car built in 1982

Sharing space on the lower level is a new Costume and Textile Gallery which showcases the Museum's premier costume collection, one of the nation's finest, boasting more than 50,000 pieces of clothing and accessories. The first exhibit is 'Dior: The New Look' with Christian Dior Couture fashions from 1947-57.

From the Ed Paschke retrospective (photo-Chicago History Museum)

A new exhibition area includes the Pritzker Foundation Special Exhibition Wing with the Mazza Foundation Gallery, currently home to Chicago artist, Ed Paschke's first retrospective exhibit since his death. It will be in place from September 30, 2006 to February 19, 2007.

'Treasures', a series of building-wide installations, presents the Chicago History Museum's collection in settings that bring to life everyday objects from the past and today.

Chicago-Hog butcher to the world

The first floor presents a display of artifacts related to the mourning and memory of Abraham Lincoln, the nation's sixteenth president. Here visitors can see the Lincoln death- bed, keys from the Ford's Theatre and more.

The spiral staircase which one used to climb from first to second floor, the place where weddings once took place, is no more. Instead, one ascends a dramatic, somewhat enclosed wood paneled staircase that leads to 'Chicago: Crossroads of America'. There are five themed galleries that present Chicago as a dynamic city-one whose growth was astonishing, and a city whose ideas and inventions influenced and shaped the nation.

There is 'L' car No. 1, Chicago's first elevated train car built in 1892 to transport riders to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. It is on long term loan from the Chicago Transit Authority and is in remarkably good condition.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871

Many exhibits are accompanied by sounds that coordinate with the display and there are many oral histories and other interactive features. Chicago can be seen as 'City on the Make', presenting financial growth from Checagou, the Native American fur trade, through 'Big Shoulders', the era of heavy industry, to the 'Pioneer' locomotive and the Union Stock Yard. 'City in Crisis' presents stories of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Affair of 1886, the 1915 Eastland Disaster, the 1919 Race Riot, 1920's Gangland Chicago and 1968, the year the Democratic National Convention erupted in violence. 'Sweet Home Chicago' shows people of Chicago, and discusses issues of race, ethnicity and class. 'The Community Gallery' is adjacent and is a changing exhibition space, currently showing 'Colonia to Community: The Southeast Side' revealing the rich history of Chicago's Mexican-American community. 'Second to None' presents Chicago's many innovations and their impact on American life, including, Prairie School furniture, Lincoln Logs, the pill, the A-bomb and more. And finally, 'My Kind of Town' shows the worlds fairs of 1893 and 1933, Riverview, sports, theater and finally, Millennium Park.

The Democratic Convention of 1968 erupted in violence

The Chicago Historical Society was founded in 1856 to document Chicago's change from a frontier town to a major urban center. Its original collection was destroyed in the 1871 Chicago Fire. After several moves, the Chicago Historical Society took up residence in its current home in 1932.

Hull House contributed to the social fabric of Chicago

Gary T. Johnson, Museum president says, 'The Chicago History Museum is one of our city's great resources. It documents the lives and times of our past,' and 'Our goal is to reach out to all communities that make up Chicago and share with them the city's stories during this momentous time in our history.'

Chicago History Museum is at 1601 Clark Street, Chicago, IL
PH: 312-642-4600 or
Hours: Monday-Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 9:30 am-4:30 pm.
Thursday, 9:30 am-8:00 pm, Sunday, 12 noon-5:00 pm

Photos: Gloria Henllan-Jones

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