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The Museum Inside Out: The Chicago History Museum’s three decades of transformation offers a window into the changing role of curators and community engagement.

Category: Curatorial Practice

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Founded in 1856, the Chicago Historical Society was imagined at a time of dramatic change in the city. Despite being only 23 years old at the time, Chicago was one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet and would be for the rest of the 19th century. The founders of the society recognized that if they didn’t document their accomplishments, they might quickly be eclipsed and forgotten by this ambitious and dynamic city, which was unlikely to rest on its achievements.

The Chicago Historical Society evolved and expanded over the next century and more, surviving fire and flood to become a venerated institution in both Chicago’s cultural landscape and the scholarly community for the significance of its holdings. The society developed a traditional organizational structure that put curators and librarians at the center of its intellectual life, which was largely focused on both the history of the people who had shaped the city and the city as central to the story of America.

Fast forward to 1974. Chicago author and radio host Studs Terkel publishes the book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, which came at a time when a wave of American scholars were already rethinking traditional narratives and seeking ways to tell a more inclusive national story. Working highlighted the value and power of the stories of ordinary people, told by ordinary people, and it influenced the work of contemporary authors such as Alex Kotlowitz, Howard Zinn, and David Isay, as well as the creators of  “The Moth” and “This American Life” radio programs. Terkel also influenced countless other scholars, researchers, and curators across the country who hoped to capture the history of their communities through the voices of the people who lived it, discovering more authentic narratives of American life in the process.

Roughly 20 years after the publication of Working, pressed by challenging economic times and low attendance, the Chicago Historical Society sought to rewrite the story of the city with a greater emphasis on everyday people, the people of Terkel’s world. It might be hard to imagine how radical an idea that was in the early-to-mid 1990s.

New Stories and New Storytellers

When Working was released, most living Americans had been taught the national narrative through the lives of a relatively few powerful, ambitious, and connected ethnically white men and their families. Speaking for myself, as a boy growing up in rural Illinois in the 1970s, the key figures in American history were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, William Clark, and Meriwether Lewis, Eli Whitney, Abraham Lincoln, Orville, and Wilbur Wright, Henry Ford, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy—in that order.

While the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was revered in my parents’ home, he was not presented as an American hero at my school. No individual woman featured prominently in the story of America with the possible exception of Betsy Ross and Dolly Madison. And of course, no pop stars, professional athletes, or movie stars were included in the American history hall of fame. It was a narrow reading that reinforced white superiority and largely disregarded the contributions of people of color and women and their struggle for equality.

Today, it might be hard for one to imagine an American historical narrative that left out the contributions of Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Robert Gould Shaw, Julius Rosenwald, Bessie Coleman, Jeanette Rankin, Frances Willard, Barbara Jordan, Daniel Inouye, Cesar Chavez, or Fazlur Khan, not to mention Satchel Paige, Billie Holiday, and Bruce Lee.

Even after including these figures in the story, we were still ignoring the people who, paraphrasing Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, “do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” If they showed up in the narrative at all, these folks typically appeared as great monoliths of consumers, laborers, or the poor. But these were the people whose individual stories were so important to Terkel. In the mid-1990s, around the time Terkel came on staff as a scholar in residence, these stories became important to the Chicago Historical Society too. However, in order to embrace that new interest, much had to change.

Between 1993 and 2005, the Chicago Historical Society dissolved its curatorial departments; launched an ambitious program of experimental exhibitions attempting to share authority and feature community voices; hired its first African American president, Lonnie G. Bunch III; and restored a curatorial practice—at Bunch’s direction—with a new commitment to collecting and sharing the experiences of the city’s diverse communities.

In 2005, Catherine M. Lewis published The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of an American Museum. Lewis’ book told the story of the organization as a case study through which one could explore the challenges facing any American museum seeking to include communities in the storytelling and power-sharing. She interviewed staff and leadership and reviewed the institutional archive to offer a history of one museum’s journey from a curator-driven model to a more inclusive community-centered approach. She described it as a transition “from temple to forum.” The book traced the ambitious and painful transformation of one of the country’s oldest and most respected historical societies into a more inclusive and vital urban history museum.

A few months before the book was published, the organization was renamed the Chicago History Museum (CHM). In 2006, it marked its 150th anniversary with a new leader, Gary T. Johnson. But change inspires more change, and CHM’s transformation was far from over.

New Curatorial Imperatives

Over the past 15 years, CHM has continued to try to push boundaries, and the curatorial staff has had to both lead that change and adapt to new expectations of them and their work. The museum’s curators have tried to discover and advance new ways to turn the museum inside out, through innovative audience research projects, experiments in digital interpretation, providing leadership in the field, and continued commitment to explore community collaborations. Some of this work puts the museum out in the neighborhood, some bring the neighborhood inside the museum, and some simply sharpens our skills as we continue to search for new and creative ways to advance the museum’s mission. Perhaps the biggest change is that these 21st-century curators are no longer the most important voices in the museum. Today, they are the equals of the educators, designers, collections, and program staff that form our internal teams and help us realize our ambitions to be more inclusive and welcoming.

Since 2005, the CHM’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History has collaborated with community partners to promote oral history as a tool for social justice. In fact, Johnson’s first act as CHM president was to ask Terkel to let the museum use his name for our new oral history center. Oral history projects in Chicago communities, such as North Lawndale and East Garfield Park, and exhibitions on the Chicago Muslim and Polish communities, have put area teens in the role of historian. Teens are recruited, trained, and then collect residents’ stories to inform future projects and researchers. In the process, the teens gain the skills of the oral historian and become the keepers of the city’s stories.

In 2008, curatorial staff committed to leading AAM’s Excellence in Exhibition Label Writing Competition each year. This program is a collaboration with university partners that have used the program as a mentorship and professional development experience for students. The label writing competition reminds our staff and the field that despite all of the advances in communication and technology, we still primarily deliver content to our visitors with edited copy and scripted texts; therefore, our writing must be accessible and captivating.

Between 2011 and 2012, the curatorial staff worked closely with collections and exhibitions departmental staff to develop an audience research study to better understand how families engage with collections. Conducted by the Garibay Group, the object study was—and still is—shared with any museum interested in the findings. The project led to a greater understanding of our collection and how intergenerational groups work together to discover history and meaning in artifacts.

In 2013, curatorial staff at the museum launched the “Chicago 00” project (chicago00.org) to explore the potential for augmented and virtual reality to reinvent interpretation at the museum and push our content out to communities. These award-winning digital products have helped the museum establish new patterns of working collaboratively with creative external partners, provide free interpreted content to anyone without coming to the museum, and have advanced our efforts to become a “digital-first” museum.

Continuing our efforts to help communities tell their own stories to the rest of the city, last fall the museum opened the exhibition “American Medina: Stories of Muslim Chicago.” Other projects designed to feature and reflect community experience and voice include “Out in Chicago” (LGBT history), “Catholic Chicago,” “Shalom Chicago” (Chicago’s Jewish community history), “My Chinatown” (Chicago’s Chinese American community’s history), and “Colonia to Community” (Chicago’s multi-ethnic Southeast Side history). All of these projects invested in community engagement to give shape to the experience and the narrative. Each helped museum staff continue to develop our skills and approach, and each reinforced the museum’s commitment to working with external partners in this way.

The statement at the start of this article about turning the museum inside out was made by a close colleague of mine at the museum. He and I came to the organization around the same time, roughly two decades ago. He said those words in a recent discussion about the role of the contemporary curator at CHM. But he could have said them when I met him 20 years ago. The institution has been hard at work on that goal since before he and I arrived.

As it turns out, like so many important tasks in life, that goal is not an end but a means. We continue to try to turn the museum inside out, to demonstrate our value to the community by meeting the people we serve where they are rather than always asking them to come to us.

We are on a journey. We have made many missteps along the way, and that is at least in part because there is no clear path to follow. There is no destination, no moment when we will arrive. Instead, there are multiple arrivals, each a plateau of achievement and a launchpad for the next stage of our development.


John Russick is senior vice president at the Chicago History Museum.

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