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History | ISM-Springfield

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.

The current headquarters of the Illinois State Museum System was built in 1962 under the auspices of Acting Museum Director John C. McGregor and were carried to fruition by Museum Director Dr. Thorne Deuel upon his return for service in WWII.  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 system. 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 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.

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 Illinois State Museum System has a new vision for the future that embraces diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion and is dedicated to de-colonizing its collections.