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Illinois State Museum History

Founded on May 25, 1877, the Illinois State Museum is a dynamic institution that has long played a leadership role in the museum community.  The Museum and its staff played important roles in the founding of the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums), the Illinois State Academy of Science, and the Illinois Academy of Fine Arts.  The Museum also pioneered the use of natural history habitats in the early 1900s, established a permanent art gallery in a museum in 1928—the first of its kind in the nation, and launched the trail-blazing Museumobile in 1948.  The Museum’s traditions of excellence, innovation, and leadership continue today.

A small but valuable “cabinet” of specimens from the state’s first geological survey commissioned in 1851 served as the foundation for the Museum’s collections. The Survey, under the direction of newly appointed State Geologist Joseph G. Norwood, M.D. and his two assistants Amos Worthen and Anthony Varner, was initially housed in New Harmony, Indiana, but in 1855 made its way to the State House (now the Old State Capitol) in Springfield. The Illinois State Normal University and the Illinois Natural History Society were founded in 1857 and 1858, respectively.  Collections from both entities would also later be added to the Museum’s collections.  In 1867, Governor Oglesby and the legislature authorized the State Board of Education to appoint and pay a curator for the Illinois Museum of Natural History at the Illinois State Normal University.  By 1877, all these collections were brought together under the auspices of the Illinois State Museum and Historical Library with Amos H. Worthen as its Curator.  The collections incorporated geology, biology, zoology, and in the 1920s anthropology and visual arts were added—making it the first and only Museum to tell the story of the land, life, people, and art of Illinois.

During the early years the Museum’s collections were frequently moved from place to place.  In 1887, while Worthen was away, the Secretary of State Henry Dement ordered the collections be moved to the basement of the Capitol.  They were moved in such a careless way that all order was lost.  Worthen had worked very hard to put the collections in order for years and sometimes without pay.  He was devastated by the mess he found when he returned and died soon after.  Upon his death, geologist Dr. Joshua Lindahl is named Curator.  Lindahl re-assembles the collections and secures them in locked rooms. With the gubernatorial win of John P. Altgeld, William F.E. Gurley is appointed Curator of the Museum.  He studied at Cornell and was formerly a prospector in Colorado.  His tenure didn’t last long, as Altgeld failed to win re-election.  Altgeld’s successor Governor John R. Tanner appointed C. H. Crantz to lead the Museum.  Crantz re-hired Fannie Fisher, who was let go by Gurly, as assistant curator.  Fisher and Crantz developed a card catalog for the Museum’s growing collections that included numerous large mammals, 222 species of birds including the Passenger Pigeon and the Caroline Parakeet, and a vast collection of fossils.  In 1903, the majority of the Museum’s collections were moved to the new State Arsenal Building at Second and Monroe Streets. 

Dr. Alja R. Crook was hired as Director in 1906 and over the next two decades was a major force in the professional development of the Illinois State Museum. Through his efforts the Illinois State Academy of Science was founded in 1917. This organization has a close association with the ISM to this day. He was also instrumental in the founding of the American Association of Museums, now the American Alliance of Museums, serving as Board secretary.  Crook was a geologist and former teacher. He wrote extensively about best practices for museums in the journals of both State Science Academy and the American Association of Museums long before the term “best practices” became common.  That same year, state government was reorganized into code departments and the museum's official name was changed to the Illinois State Museum; the new statutes also provided for a Museum Board and set forth the purpose of the museum - to collect items of natural history and to use these for public education. Anthropology and art departments were added in the 1920s.

In 1923, the Museum, and over 150,000 objects in its collection, moved to more expansive spaces in the Centennial Memorial Building. Following this move, the Museum added staff and launched a series of outreach programs to serve schools and the public.  Like other public institutions, the Museum suffered during the Great Depression, but some programs, such as extensive archaeological field projects and development of art exhibitions and loan cases for public schools, were supported under the auspices of the Works Project Administration. On May 30, 1930, Dr. Crook passed away and the Museum’s Board was very concerned about who would be his successor.  The Board met with Governor Emerson and the Director of the Department of Registration and Education to ensure a proper candidate would be appointed. 

Arthur Sterry Coggeshall is selected to succeed Dr. Crook.  Coggeshall had worked at the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.  He was a talented museologist and created exhibits to engage the general public.  His work increased the Museum’s attendance significantly.  At the end of 1936, Coggeshall was preparing to leave the Museum.  Gilbert Wright declined an offer to serve as acting Director from Coggeshall, so Coggeshall’s assistant Ione Leitz was made “Clerk in Charge.”  Later in the Spring Wright was again asked to serve as acting Director and this time he accepted. But in October of 1937 he left, and Ms. Leitz was again in charge.  The Museum’s Board of Advisors had been seeking a top candidate to lead the Museum since Coggeshall left to no avail.  Then after interviewing a number of well-known candidates the position was offered to Dr. Thorne Deuel and he became the Director on January 1, 1938.  With the hiring of Editor Virginia Eifert, the Museum’s magazine, The Living Museum, was founded in 1939. It provides a rich educational resource to this day. Dr. Deuel initiated new programs including a Modern Youth Museum, weekly radio programs, evening educational programs, rotating exhibits, and a comprehensive publication program all by 1940.

Dr. Deuel served in the Armed Forces during World War II during which time John C. McGregor was acting chief of the Museum.  Following the War, the Museum flourished and further expanded facilities and services to the public. In 1949, the Museum pioneered the “Museumobile,” the first traveling museum of its kind in the country. In 1951, the Museum dramatically improved its cataloging and accession systems and further expanded its educational programs.  A year later, the Museum launched the Illinois State Museum Society, a not-for-profit membership organization chartered independently but recognized in the state statutes to support the research and educational programs of the Illinois State Museum.

Work toward a new building for the Museum began under the auspices of McGregor and were carried to fruition by Dr. Deuel and other advocates.  Although half the size called for in the original plans, the Museum finally had its own facility, and established world-class exhibitions in natural history, cultural history, and art.  The current 96,000 square-foot public museum building in Springfield was dedicated in 1963. At that time, Dr. Deuel retired and Milton Thompson, Assistant Director, took over.  Thompson introduced audio-visual programs and worked to reorganize the Museum’s accession system.  The Museum’s holdings grew in 1965 with the transfer of the Dickson Mounds archaeological site (Lewistown, Illinois) to the Museum family. A new museum, the Dickson Mounds Museum, was built at the site and dedicated to the public in 1972. During the next year, the Museum launched its interdisciplinary Quaternary Studies Program (the forerunner of the Landscape History Program), and the Museum’s research programs have received international acclaim since that time.

On January 1, 1977, after Thompson retired, Dr. R. Bruce McMillan took the helm.  Under McMillan the scientific research programs continued to flourish, its reach broadened, and its public programs expanded. In 1982, the Museum launched its children’s discovery center at the Museum in Springfield, in 1984 the Peoples of the Past exhibit was opened, and in 1985 the Illinois Artisans Program was created.  To deal with the ever-growing number of specimens and artifacts in the Museum’s collection, it acquired a facility in Springfield and initiated renovations to establish its state-of-the-art Research and Collections Center (RCC). The RCC opened in 1988. The Museum’s Chicago Gallery and the first Illinois Artisans Shop opened in 1985 in the newly constructed James R. Thompson Center, the Lockport Gallery opened in 1987, and the Southern Illinois Art and Artisans Center was dedicated at Rend Lake in 1990, giving the Museum a physical presence statewide.  In March 2000 we leased a large space on the first floor of the historic Norton Building in Lockport and renovated it to rehouse the Lockport Gallery.  After 13 years in the Gaylord Building, the Lockport Gallery opened to the public in its spacious new quarters on January 6, 2001.  In July 2002, an architectural redesign of the Chicago Gallery was completed as a state funded capital project, and the gallery was reopened to the public. 

The American Association of Museums (AAM) first accredited the Illinois State Museum in 1972, making it one of the first museums in the country to hold this status. The AAM gave subsequent accreditation endorsements of the Museum’s successes and professionalism in 1982, 1997, and 2009. The 1997 AAM Accreditation report noted that “The ISM is a national leader in the way it combines its unique collections, collaborative team approach, and specialized research capabilities along with its cutting-edge technology applications in support of exhibitions, public programs, and publications.”  The Museum maintains its accreditation today.

The dawn of the new century saw continued innovation at the Museum with the opening of the Technology Learning Center at the Research and Collections Center. In 2005, with funds secured via a major grant award written by Associate Director Dr. Bonnie W. Styles and Education Director Beth Shea, the Museum Tech Academy was launched. The program was geared for low income and minority Springfield-area students in grades 7-12. Students who participated in the afterschool and summer program learned about archaeology, geology, natural history and technology. The summer was spent in the field where students helped excavate an archaeological site with the Museum’s partner, the Center for American Archaeology in Kampsville. The program was a national model funded by the National Science Foundation for three years and two years via the Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Fish Fund. Unfortunately, hard times came to roost in Illinois and the last Museum Tech Academy class graduated in 2009. 

In 2004, the Museum launched a new inter-disciplinary, multi-media exhibition entitled Changes: Dynamic Illinois Environments. The exhibit allows visitors to travel into the past 500 million years to see, hear, and touch Illinois’ environments through engaging hands-on interactive displays, audio and video effects, and thousands of authentic fossils. It includes virtually all of the disciplines the Museum studies to unveil a clearer picture of how all these components combine to effect change in our world.  Dickson Mounds began working collaboratively with The Nature Conservancy and has a tremendous new opportunity to reach expanded audiences and serve as an educational center for the adjacent Emiquon Wetlands Restoration project.  In 2005, the Museum initiated planning for the development of a new ecology exhibition at Dickson Mounds Museum that will examine human interactions with the Illinois River Valley and take advantage of the restoration of the Emiquon Wetlands in the floodplain below Dickson Mounds Museum. 

In 2006, the Museum Board appointed the first woman Director in the Museum’s history. A Northwestern University graduate, Dr. Bonnie Whatley Styles, joined the Museum staff in 1977 as Assistant Curator of Anthropology and Chair of the Department.  She played an integral role in creating many of the exhibitions in the Museum today, including Changes and At Home in the Heartland. She spearheaded the development of the temporary|PERMANENT Gallery on the 2nd floor to highlight the Museum’s stellar art collection.  She also led the development of a changing exhibition area to highlight the Museum’s research on current popular science topics called the Hot Science Gallery. 

In the Spring of 2011, the Museum replaced its ground-breaking children’s area, A Place for Discovery, with a new equally ground-breaking children’s area called the Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum.  The exhibit was inspired by Mary Ann MacLean and generously supported by Mary Ann and her husband Barry MacLean among others.  It was also funded in part by an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant.  The hands-on area allows children to pretend to be a member of the Museum staff by going on an excavation for mastodont bones, loading a jeep for an expedition, creating a museum exhibition of their own, and studying animal and bug specimens under a microscope.   The Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum remains very popular with children and families today. 

On September 30, 2015, the Museum System was closed to the public for the first time in its 138-year history and lost many of its leadership and staff due to unprecedented fiscal issues and governmental deadlock.  The remaining staff, cognizant of the Museum’s legacy and its importance to the citizens of the State, set about planning for the eventual re-opening and rebuilding of the Museum.  On July 2, 2016, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, the Research and Collections Center, and the Dickson Mounds Museum opened once again to the public.  Negotiations continued and on September 24, 2016, the Lockport Gallery also reopened.  In celebration of reopening and the State’s Bicentennial the Museum opened the most comprehensive exhibition of its 13.5 million Illinois Legacy Collection—entitled Bicentennial and Beyond! The Illinois Legacy Collection.

The closure of the Museum placed its 44-year history of Accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums in jeopardy, and the Museum was placed on probation. However, through hard work and perseverance of the staff, internally dubbed the Corp of Recovery, AAM lifted the probation and the Museum was returned to its fully accredited status.

The Illinois State Museum has evolved from a nineteenth century natural history cabinet to a modern museum that is recognized as one of the leading state museums in the United States. Today, the Museum has a new director and a new vision for the future that embraces diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion and is dedicated to de-colonizing its collections.