top of page

Not Just for Field Trips

Museums as surrogate schools

Illinois Issues

July 1995

More and more museums are showing schools how to teach science and history to kids. Which raises worries that our museums will more and more come to resemble our schools—or worse, come to be judged by schools standards.

If there's any dust on museums these days, it's plaster from new construction. In the 1980s, the museum biz boomed. New ones opened, old ones expanded, brought on younger staff, and shook the cobwebs out of their displays as visitors poured in. Illinois today has a museum for virtually every interest, and at present rates of expansion will soon have a museum for every Illinoisan.

Still, the cultural landscape is shifting in ways that are rocking museums' foundations. Audiences are changing, and so are standards of scholarship. Museums face competition from new forms of entertainment, from theme parks to TV that are more educational than traditional museum fare is entertaining. Nor are museums the only repositories of the bizarre and the exotic, as any child learns when she turns on the Discovery Channel or C-SPAN.

Funding is iffy too. Corporate and private philanthropy is stretched very thin. (The cumulative goal of capital fund drives now underway for the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute in Chicago is $112 million.) Public funding, more predictably, also is undependable. For a century, Illinois museums were funded the way that one used to automatically tip one's hat to the parson—on the assumption that he was worthy of respect. But museums are no longer automatically counted among the deserving poor by lawmakers. The Right sees their well-meant attempts to accommodate Illinois's more urban, polyglot culture as proof that museums are agent provocateurs in our PC wars, while the Left sees them as irrelevant to that culture. A lot of people in-between feel the natural resentment felt by the nearly educated for the way-educated.

Important factions in the new Congress have targeted for funding cuts the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Institutes of Health—all substantial funders of museum research, outreach, and exhibit projects in Illinois.

Museums thus are keen to demonstrate that they have usefulness beyond scholarship and instruction in social manners, now that both of those traditional benefits are temporarily beyond the political pale. Nothing demonstrates a museum's dedication to High Public Purpose more than education. The Art Institute's newest long-range plan, like those of most of its sisters in Illinois, pledges a renewed emphasis on education that recalls its own 19th-century youth, when its collections consisted mainly of plaster casts of Famous Art assembled for students to copy.

Museums in those days brought to visitors things they knew about but had not seen. Today they are more often asked to show visitors things they have seen but know nothing about. A spokesperson for the Art Institute explains that the mission of the museum's education department today is still essentially to teach people about its collection. But where coming to the museum used to constitute maybe ten percent of a child's education in art, now it's often his only education in art. It used to be that an art museum was where one went to see a Monet. Today it is to find out who Monet was. (And in some cases, to find out what a museum is.)

A few years ago, the Field Museum surveyed its visitors about the Pacific, which was to be the subject of a major—and controversial—new exhibit. Staff found that while people had heard of the Pacific somewhere, many of them didn't know there was so much water in it or that it had so many islands. One would not think that explaining that the Pacific has a lot of water in it is the best use of an institution that is home to the West's pre-eminent experts on Melanesian cultures, but then buying a computer to teach four-year-olds how to add two and two isn't very efficient either.

There's one we don't have yet: A museum of misguided pedagogy.


Museum ed


Education is the sum of the mandate of most of Illinois's newer museums. Scitech, the not-for-profit "science and technology interactive center" in Aurora, was the brainstorm of a senior scientist at Fermilab eager to find ways to cure science illiteracy.

The measure of museums' commitment to education may be taken in the lavish provision in new museum buildings such as that being built by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art for classrooms, lecture halls, and libraries. Less visible is the increasing share of the budget and clout that museum education wields at the big museums. Not so long ago a field in which retired teachers might putter productively, museum ed is now an accredited profession. In days past they explained exhibits; today they help design them. Museum News runs articles on human learning by the University of Chicago's unpronounceable expert on "flow," Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describing how museums might build intrinsic rewards and situational interest into their exhibits along with the humidity controls and lighting.

When one visits the Discovery Room in the Illinois State Museum or the Kidspace at Scitech, it is hard not to be impressed with the buzz of committed activity one sees there. It is also hard to not ask why one can't see the same things in every grade school in the state. "Discovery centers"—every museum has one—look like what a grade school science class would look like if schools were as well run as our museums.

There being real limits on how many kids one can cram into a museum on field trips—one of those limits being the tolerance of other visitors to having the place turned into a school—less and less of museum education happens inside museums. The Illinois State Museum shares its collection of Illinois arts and crafts via distance-learning networks to (mainly small rural) schools that finally got electricity but don't yet have arts programs. The Field supplies materials to "teach" Africa (required by the Illinois General Assembly, which is quicker to provide mandates than materials). The Art Institute and the Sears Roebuck Foundation provide area schools with ten framed posters of famous works (mostly from the Institute's own collections). Chicago-area schools incorporate Middle East anthropology into their social studies curricula thanks to the Spertus Museum at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. The Museum of Science and Industry sponsors science clubs in neighborhoods throughout the city and supplies them with materials and training.

Museums and schools have always worked together of course. Museums offered the chance for an outing, and the schools offered a way to kite the attendance figures. Today, increasingly, museums are a presence in the day-to-day curriculum. "Synergistic" is a good word to describe a relationship in which museums provide expertise and materials and schools provide civic purpose.

Real dirt! Real fun!

This evolving relationship benefits museums and school districts, clearly. It also benefits lawmakers and their constituents, who thus can pass off some of the costs of educating the young to private givers (including foundations) and to federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation that fund projects like Scitech. But the real beneficiaries are kids.

One museum tradition in particular has reinvigorated museum education, and thus promises to do the same for what we might call school education. That is the museum's focus on the real. In days past, seeing, oh, a wooden buffalo mask of the Bamileke behind glass was as close as one got to it. In the pre-TV era that was enough. But seeing is no longer believing in a TV culture; kids look at amazing stuff behind glass all day long.

The Field states that learning is achieved primarily through the object. It certainly is at the Field, an institution that has some 20 million objects in its collections. What scientists know also is known by child development researchers, and by children. Only conventional pedagogy seems not to know this.

Thus the trend in museum education toward "hands-on" learning. At Dickson Mounds, visitors may get insights into Indian ways by grinding corn, using a pump drill, honing bone into needles, playing with replicas of ancient toys. In 1989 the ArdFact Center at the Spertus Museum recreated a Near Eastern archaeological dig in which kids dig—real dirt! real fun!—for pot shards that reveal how the ancient peoples of Israel lived. Teens get a chance to actually handle specimens and learn scientific methods at the Illinois State Museum's "Science Connections" workshops. In short, visitors get the chance to do science more the way scientists do it.

Done with restraint, such experiences add enormously to "the museum experience." (Most of these activities are aimed at kids, but the Art Institute is not the only museum to find that adults want to get in on some serious fun.) At the Art Institute's Kraft Education Center, copies of major works are displayed near six alcoves. One can pick up an African ceremonial mask, then adjourn to watch a video showing the dance in whose rituals it plays a part. Seeing a Japanese wood block print up close may be augmented by a chance to handle print paper and a wood block, and inspect a print in various stages of production. Here, the real world and the abstract world of image are put back into their proper relation.

The best of the museum education programs do not only do more than most schools do. They do it in ways that most schools can't, or won't. For example, museums are abandoning the schools' one-size-fits-all methods. The museum's enduring reputation for boringness is owed in large part to the fact that exhibits were designed for only those visitors who were comfortable with the printed word. Exhibit designers now recognize that people learn in different ways. Today, computers, slides, sound tracks, graphics give visitors choices about how to learn. Graphics teach visual learners, words the readers, just as there are techniques geared to the preferences of the listeners, the problem solvers, the touchers, the artists, and the builders.

Museum educators also are liberated by the setting within which learning happens. The visitor to the museum has choices in what to pay attention to as well as how, plus the freedom—ironically, most constrained on "educational" field trips—to choose how long to pay attention. The Field's president, Willard L. Boyd, drew a sharp distinction between conventional schools and museums in a recent address to an East Coast college of education: "Unlike schooling, learning in a museum is self-motivated, self-directed and can be lifelong."

Boyd goes so far as to imagine a future in which museums will have evolved into alternatives to conventional schools by becoming centers of teaching as well as centers of learning. Some Illinois museums already function as parallel schools or community learning centers (phrases used by others in the field who tout the same idea); the steadiest users of the new exhibits at Dickson Mounds Museum, for example, are home-schoolers.

It is not hard to foresee a quid pro quo in which school systems would both exploit museums' interest in audience building and outreach and give the latter a new revenue stream by contracting arts and sciences instruction to them. But reaching more than a few students would require bulking up museum ed departments, which might thus achieve the imbecilities of scale that afflict existing school bureaucracies.

Better that the museums stay out of the schools. There is a role for them as laboratories to test new ideas—new to the educational establishment, anyway. It is admittedly a fond hope. Illinois' better private schools have been immersing their students in the real for years, with no apparent impact on mainstream methods. School systems, like kids, apparently learn better by doing than by example.

A more promising role for museums is as an alternative to another discredited branch of American pedagogy, teachers' colleges. Museums have already attracted a cadre of committed teachers—it is hard not to think of them as subversives—who are eager to learn better ways of doing their jobs. Two examples of several: The Illinois State Museum in 1992–93 drew 300 people to week-long science literacy training institutes for teachers, funded by the State Board of Education, and the Art Institute busily produces teacher manuals and various courses for teachers, some of them for credit.

Having excited the best with new ideas about teaching, perhaps our museums can help raise the rest. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page