Education Outside the Classroom
Cultural institutions in Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
It is perhaps too easy to deride early Chicago for its lack of what its Downstate cousins would have called l’arnin.’ Many of its leading citizens were cultivated people, often educated in the East or in Europe. These sensitive cosmopolitans included a surprising number of businessmen such as Isaac N. Arnold; his house (which occupied the entire block on Michigan Avenue between Erie and Huron) contained, in addition to the Arnolds, eight thousand books on literature, law and history, including an admired Civil War collection.
Such people were few, but made up for their small numbers with their energy and influence.
They brought to the business of improving the Chicago mind the same determination and single-mindedness that everyone else—indeed, as most of them—did to making money. As early as the 1830s lyceums and institutes and learned associations were being set up in Chicago. They are largely forgotten, but within a generation the city was seeing the birth of more familiar institutions, such as the Chicago Historical Society (1856) and the Chicago Academy of Sciences (1857). More were to come.
This account does not include Chicagoland’s community museums. They number in the dozens. Most consist of historic house museums and ethnic museums. In Chicago, “community” is often defined in social and ethnic rather than geographic terms. Every self-respecting ethnic group in Chicago has at least one museum or cultural center dedicated to the exploits of its people. These are described as part of my accounts of Chicagoland ethnic communities under "Society."
Not considered seriously here is the fun museum, which aims less to teach than to amuse. Typical of the latter is the Lake County Discovery Museum, which promises “the fun, well-rounded museum experience you expect from a big-city museum without the traffic hassles.” Ancient arrowheads are displayed alongside a copy of the novel "Dandelion Wine" by Waukegan native Ray Bradbury. Visitors may also marvel at the “world's largest collection of picture postcards” and an annual Civil War re-enactment—although Lee’s army did not get even as far north as Highland Park.
These notes are taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. See Publications for more about that project.
The Chicago Public Library
By the time it was leveled by the Great Fire in 1871, Chicago had not quite lived up to the dreams of its culturally ambitious citizens to become an Athens of the West. When news of the catastrophe hit Britain, sympathetic Brits generously sent books to replace the ones they assumed had been lost, not knowing that Chicago—some 40 years after its founding—still had no public library. Thomas Hughes, the well-known author of the book Tom Brown's School Days, organized the donation of some 8,000 volumes, and Chicago found itself with the nucleus of its first public library collection but without a library building to put them in. The city had to build shelves for the books into an old water tower. (Today the Chicago Public library has the opposite problem. It owns a massive new main library downtown, said to be the largest such in the world, but has trouble keeping it filled.)
The John Crerar Library
Another weapon in the arsenal against boobery was the John Crerar Library. The Crerar (“cree-RAWR“) library opened in 1897 in space in the Marshall Field Annex at Wabash and Washington streets, with staff of 22 who minded a collection of approximately 11,000 volumes and about 171 journals. From its early days, the decision was made to focus on topics in fields not covered by the city’s other libraries such as philosophy, physical and natural sciences, useful arts (technology), the fine arts (in part), sociology, and economics. The breadth of that list suggests how poor were the city’s other libraries at the time.
As libraries do, the Crerar Library collection grew, and soon needed more space. Its trustees at first wanted to build in Grant Park, where they came up against the usual opposition from empty-park advocates who believed that the best park is one with nothing in it. After years of wrangling, the library voted to build a new facility on the northwest corner of Randolph and Michigan avenues. Designed by Holabird and Roche, the building reopened in 1921 with seven floors of book stacks, two reading rooms, and adjoining commercial space to generate money to pay for it all.
By World War II, the Crerar was suffering from competition from tax-supported libraries, and its board sought to attach the library to a local university to reduce costs. From 1956 until 1981 the collection—now minus the social and medical sciences—was moved to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology and a new built-for-the-purpose building by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. The library’s own history notes, with delicious understatement, that “contractual arrangements between two strong minded institutions were difficult to sustain,” the university and the library each having its own ideas about what to collect. By the 1970s the board began to explore other options. The City of Chicago and the local campus of the University of Illinois were among the proposed new partners; eventually the University of Chicago decided that adding the Crerar to its campus would allow it to improve own science library facilities. The resulting merger in 1981 called for a new Crerar Library building to be erected at 5730 S. Ellis Avenue, where it operates today.
The Newberry Library
The Crerar is hardly known, even in Chicago, but the other of the city’s two major private libraries is known worldwide. Like the Academy of Sciences, the Newberry Library‘s original building plans would have filled an entire block but only the south wing, facing Washington Square, was built. Even in its truncated form, however, it is a massive resource.
The Newberry was founded in 1887 by a bequest of Walter L. Newberry, a successful businessman who had been an active book collector, founder of the Young Men's Library Association, and president of the Chicago Historical Society. When he died in 1868, he decreed that his money should go to his daughters, should they have children; if they did not, it was to be spent on a public library for the city’s north side. The daughters Newberry died childless, but while they deprived Chicago of new citizens they inadvertently gave it a library. Since, by the time they died, the City of Chicago had opened its own public library, the Library's trustees decided to devote Newberry's bequest to the establishment of a non-circulating reference library.
The Newberry and sister libraries in Chicago sensibly parceled out their collecting to avoid duplication; the sciences were left to the Crerar, Chicago Public focused on business, and the Newberry became home to the humanities. The Newberry’s collections today number 1,500,000 printed titles, five million manuscript pages, and 300,000 historic maps. It lists its strengths as the European exploration and settlement of the Americas and Native American history and literature; the American West; local history (including family history and genealogy); literature and history of the Midwest, especially the Chicago Renaissance; the Renaissance; the French Revolution; Portuguese and Brazilian history; British literature and history; and the histories of printing, linguistics, cartography, and the history and theory of music. (The Newberry Consort, an early music ensemble in residence that enjoys a wide reputation for excellence, bases its programs on materials from the Newberry's collections.)
The Newberry is one of Chicagoland’s premier teaching institutions. It runs one of the largest library-based fellowship programs in the U.S., educational programs for students at the graduate, undergraduate, and secondary school levels, and a busy program of lectures, conferences, colloquia, and seminars.
The Great Books
The problem with libraries as a means to educate the masses, of course, is that the masses seldom set foot in one. How to bring books to the people instead is a challenge that had occupied more than a few Chicagoans over the years. For example, one of the myriad products that Chicago packed and sold to a mass market was knowledge. Sears, Roebuck had been selling the Encyclopaedia Britannica through its catalogs for years when it bought the EB in the 1930s and moved it to Chicago from New York; the most pre-eminent mass-market retailer marketed this reference work as an intellectual do-it-yourself tool kit.
One seldom thinks of the University of Chicago pandering to the masses, but that institution was the home of another attempt to package ideas for general consumption in the 1930s. Columbia University in New York City was then offering a classics-oriented curriculum as an antidote to the specialization, the professionalization, indeed the vocationalism that was by then creeping into higher education. To restore a shared Western culture to the heart of the college experience, new U of Chicago president Robert Hutchins put the classics at heart of the core curriculum to be mastered by all undergrads at his university.
Hutchins wanted to bring that basic wisdom to a wider audience. The means was the publication in the 1950s of the University of Chicago-sponsored Great Books of the Western World series (of which Hutchins was editor-in-chief) and the founding of Great Books clubs to discuss them. Study of the Great Books constituted an ersatz extension course for former and never-been students. A. J. Libeling scorned the Great Books approach and its assumption that a liberal culture can be acquired “by reading arbitrarily chosen slivers of a number of arbitrarily chosen books,” but the Great Books became the rage for a time among intellectually upwardly mobile Americans.
Hutchins himself co-taught evening courses on the great books with Mortimer Adler, who is perhaps more popularly associated with the program. University lore includes tales of "The Fat Men’s Great Books Course," which began when Hutchins recruited prominent Chicago businessmen and their wives to meet downtown every other Friday evening in 1943 for discussions of Aristotle and Locke. (Among the participants were rumored to be Leo Burnett, Jack Chrysler, Marshall Field, Motorola head Robert Galvin, Fowler McCormick, map publisher Andrew McNally, John Nuveen, elevator heir Sanford Otis, Mrs. Potter Palmer, Harold Swift, Alfred Vanderbilt, and Charles Walgreen.) It is not clear that the exercise elevated Chicago’s intellectual life, although it might have elevated the self-esteem of some of the participants; the rest might have discovered that reading a great book does not make one a thinker, any more than playing the same golf course as Ben Hogan makes one a golfer.
Museums as teaching institutions
Museums in Chicago have always had a teaching role, one that predates their current preoccupation with curatorial chores. The first collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example, consisted of plaster casts of Old World statues, which students could learn from and, in the latter case, copy. Today it is a wider public that museums aim to educate about the arts and sciences, and their staffs include professionals trained in the arcane arts of museum education, but they remain places where one might learn as well as wonder.
The Field Museum
The Field Museum was founded in 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago, a permanent repository for the odds and ends left over from the World's Columbian Exposition. In obedience to ancient protocols that guide such matters, the name was changed to the Field Museum of Natural History in 1905 when retailer Marshall Field wrote his first big check to it. (It reverted to the Chicago Natural History Museum between 1943 to 1966.)
The Field was initially ensconced in the old Fine Arts Building in Jackson Park, but that building proved inadequate, and in 1921 the museum moved downtown. It had originally been proposed that the museum build new quarters in Grant Park, a more convenient spot, but that would have violated court rulings that restricted building heights in the park. Instead, the museum was stuck on a site just outside Grant Park's southern boundary on the northern edge of Burnham Park, in a new building whose central hall is a neo-Classic gem.
Today’s public knows the Field as the home of Sue, the world's largest intact dinosaur skeleton, but the Field is the only local museum that's also a major research institution. Field-sponsored research is currently under way in more than 90 countries; the building had PhDs the way other museums have mice. Industrious collecting and purchases have swelled its collections to more than 20 million artifacts; one can tour the world’s jungles and islands and mountain ranges from within its laboratories. The labs are sensibly closed to the public, but the Harris Educational Loan Program makes available hands-on materials for families to use at home.
The Museum of Science and Industry
As noted, the Field Museum’s first home was the former Fine Arts Building built for the World Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. Like all the exposition buildings, the Fine Arts Building was a temporary structure, not much more than a decorated shed, and after a quarter-century the Field had to remove its collections for fear of damage from leaks.
A number of schemes were hatched to save the graceful old hulk, but it was not until the economic boom of the 1920s that money was available to transform it into the museum that figures in the school-days recollections of uncounted Illinoisans. The crumbling hall was rebuilt as a permanent structure, thanks to the generosity of serial giver Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck. The exterior was left unchanged in terms of its looks, but the interior was completely reworked for its new purposes when it opened in 1940.
The new MSI was modeled on the Deutsches Museum in Munich, easily the first scientific and technical museum in the world, which had impressed a vacationing Rosenwald. Chicagoans wanted to be wowed, not merely instructed, but wowing even Chicagoans cost money and ticket sales were never enough to keep up with the costs of running the place.
Fiscal exigency—it almost went bust in the 1930s—tempted the MSI to a controversial remedy. It opened its doors to industry-sponsored exhibits. Call it advertising, call it propaganda, but they were cheap. The museum today is a stunning and exhausting place, crammed with interactive this and hands-on that, and certainly the only place in the city where one can see a Boeing 737 flying indoors.
As long ago as 1970s, critics like Carl Condit complained that the institution had strayed from its mission of teaching about science, mathematics, and the technology of industrial processes and products. Instead, it runs perilously close to becoming what Rosenwald feared, a Coney Island of industrial and technological gimmicks. Of late, the trend has been toward child-pleasing play, and if its blockbuster exhibits at their worst are reminiscent of the sideshow, the general ambiance is that of the playground.
Alas, people are less easily wowed than they used to be. The MSI once drew more than 3 million people a year when admission was free. Since the advent of paid admission in 1991, attendance is less than half that—a decline that owes in part to the reduction in field-trip visits by penny-pinching schools. The MSI these days is outdrawn by the Art Institute and the Shedd Aquarium and is rivaled even by the serious-minded Field.
The Chicago Academy of Sciences
A city Chicago’s size has many museums of the second rank. In 1865, the Chicago Academy of Sciences opened Chicago’s first museum. It was a traditional museum devoted to systematically saving for study bits of a natural world already fast disappearing. That mission was frustrated when the museum and its collections burned down in the Great Fire of 1871. The specimens that museums around the world generously sent to Chicago to make good that loss formed the basis of the new collection that was housed in a new building in Lincoln Park, named after Matthew Laflin, the benefactor who provided the money for it.
The CAS mission shifted in the 1980s from research to teaching, it having become clear that it could be no more than a poor imitation of the Field as a research institution. In 1999, the Academy opened a new building at Fullerton and Cannon with a new name—the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, after a new benefactor—and with a new attitude. It set attendance record in 2004, thanks to the exhibit, “Animal Grossology: The Science of Creatures Gross and Disgusting.”
The Oriental Institute Museum
The Oriental Institute Museum is a showcase of history, art and archaeology. “Oriental” is here used in its original sense, to indicate the ancient Near East. The Museum exhibits major collections of antiquities from monumental statues to household utensils from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Anatolia. The riches are too many and varied to describe in detail; typical is the “Striding Lion,” a glazed brick panel that decorated a side of the 'Processional Way' north of the Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon, which dates from the Reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, ca. 604–562 B.C.
The OI is a scholarly enterprise with a museum on the side. (Among other projects, Institute scholars are currently working on dictionaries of Assyrian, Hittite, and Demotic.) Most of the artifacts in the Oriental Institute Museum were acquired in the process of archaeological excavations sponsored by the Institute since 1919. Typical of the diligent diggers was James Henry Breasted, the University’s first professor of Egyptology, who, according to his wife, was distracted during their honeymoon in the Nile Valley and, by his desire to copy inscriptions. Thanks to Breasted and his like, the collection of some 40,000 objects in the Egyptian collection is considered among the best in North America.
Such materials were not stolen; the typical deal in the 19th century was for excavators to keep half of what their unearthed, as a sort of commission from national governments unable to mount their own digs. These days, removal even with permission is decried by the nations whose national treasures now reside, incongruously, at the end of the No. 2 CTA bus line. (Many of the institute's scholars agree; they set up a Working Group to help identify and return artifacts stolen from the Iraq Museum in the days after the U.S. invasion in 2003.) As a result, the Institute’s collection could not duplicated today at any cost.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications
The Museum of Broadcast Communications, the grandiloquently named museum of popular daio and TV, is just the place for those with fond memories of—or curiosity about—Chicago broadcasting in its heyday. The MBC is one of only three broadcast museums in America and home to the nation’s only Radio Hall of Fame (complete with a collection of vintage radio receivers). It does all that is expected of such institutions these days—temporary exhibits, conservation and archiving of artifacts, screenings, publications—but the real attraction is the public archives of more than 60,000 radio and television programs and commercials accessible for screening. The MBC opened to the public in 1987 in Chicago's South Loop. From 1992 until 2003, the MBC was located in the Chicago Cultural Center but closed in 2003 in preparation for a move to a new, much larger facility of its own at 360 N. State Street in 2012.
The Chicago Athenaeum calls itself The Museum of Architecture and Design, and offers photos models, computer-generated graphics, furniture and decorative buildings elements touching the city’s buildings and the various schools of architecture that developed here, urban planning, and industrial and product design. One recent guidebook described it as “for those who just can’t get enough about Chicago architecture.”
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows on Navy Pier was not a museum, but a permanent exhibition hung along 900 feet of corridor that features dozens of windows that once decorated Chicago-area houses, shops, and places of worship. Many are by national and international artists in that medium such as Louis Tiffany and John LaFarge, but one can also see works by once-jarringly new Chicago artists Ed Paschke and Roger Brown. The cathedral-like atmosphere of the typical high-art museum is certainly not present here; the works have been sensibly protected by bullet-proof glass. A remodeling of the pier meant that the exhibit was permanently closed in 2014.
By 2017 such wonders were again on display in Chicagoland. The Halim Time and Glass Museum houses more than 1,100 time pieces and over 70 stained glass pieces from church windows to art objects by Tiffany, all handsomely displayed in a five-story building built for the purpose. Located in slightly suburban Evanston, the museum is a project of the family of Egyptian immigrant businessman Cameel Halim.
The diligent museum-goer can also choose from among many other specialty museums. Like Halim's museum, these could with justice be labeled vanity museums, since almost all of them consist of collections amassed according to the fancy of wealthy or eccentric collectors. The Schingoethe Center for Native American Cultures is essentially the private collection of two local collectors, husband and wife Herbert and Martha Schingoethe, who donated money for a building at Aurora University to house it and support its operation. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian likewise houses the collection of an avid amateur, Evanstonian John Mitchell.
Another is the Lizzadro Museum Of Lapidary Art in Elmhurst (‘Sharing with others the eternal beauty of gemstones and promoting the study of earth science”). Immigrant cobbler-turned-successful-electrical-contractor Joseph Lizzadro amassed what the museum promises is the most extensive collection of stone carvings displayed in the Midwest, including a nephrite jade imperial altar set from the Ming Dynasty, housed in a museum Lizzardo had built in the 1960s in Elmhurst’s Wilder Park.
Preserving the future of preserving the past
Unquestionable successes in civic terms, Chicagoland’s museums of all sorts suffer from the woes of all such American institutions. Staff are more numerous and better paid than ever, and buildings that dazzle the public into spending time and money in them are not cheap. The Chicago Park District’s long-standing subsidy of the big museums on its properties remains something Chicago has reason to boast of, but the city has its own money troubles, and that subsidy is shrinking as a proportion of total museum budgets. Corporate donors for decades took up the slack, but there are fewer big corporations still based in Chicago of the sort that used to give out of hometown pride. And museums programmers face competition they never used to. On a trip to, say, the Field fifty years ago, people saw things they not only had never seen but never imagined; today, they enter having a lifetime of movies, TV, and computer simulations in their heads that make the most inventive museum display look staid. As result, attendance at all of Chicago's large museums has been falling in recent years, except when one gets a temporary boost because of a blockbuster exhibit or a new building.
Museums thus are caught in a familiar vicious cycle. To bring in more money, they need to expand their audience; to entice that audience, they need to broaden their missions; to broaden their mission, they need to spend more money. The shift of funding from private to the public—not in the form of tax money but admissions—is gradually turning these great educational institutions into entertainment enterprises.
Institutions that began hoping to teach the public, now must seek to please them. The Field introduced Chicagoland to the blockbuster museum show in 1977 with its “Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit; it drew 1.3 million customers, and neither going to or running a museum has been the same since. More recent blockbuster touring exhibits at Field featured the Dead Sea Scrolls, the artifacts of Cleopatra, and—surely a nadir for an institution that devoted to biology and paleontology and archaeology and ethnography—an exhibit of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes that drew nearly 359,000 in its six-month run.
Not only do museums need to find new audiences, they need to find new roles. As noted, they have always been teaching institutions of a sort. This used to be accomplished simply, by simply exhibiting an object, and later by labeling it. In recent decades, museums that once smacked of the laboratory have turned themselves into classrooms. Of the Art Institute’s five official purposes, for example, two are explicitly educational. All have expanded outreach to cultivate a new generation of museum-goer (and future donor) and to justify their (dwindling) public subsidies.
The Notebaert Nature Museum pursues an explicitly educational agenda. In the 1980s, the Chicago Academy of Sciences began providing science education programs for Chicago Public School teachers and students which that beleaguered system could no longer provide itself. Its new building was designed to foster environmental learning through its exhibits and education programs; toward that end, welcomes 65,000 students on field trips each year and offers 100 science and nature programs to teachers, students, and visitors and professional development programs and resources to some 2,000 educators.
The Field, like the others, long operated what amounts to the museum equivalent of the university extension program. Each year, more than 250,000 school children visit The Field Museum to learn more about their world. More than 10,000 teachers a year use the Field’s resources for professional development and planning “learning activities.” The Field also loans exhibit and demonstration materials to area teachers for classroom use. Other institutions do the same. The Art Institute offers area teachers interdisciplinary materials for purchase and/or loan. Teachers also may borrow “loan boxes” from the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian for classroom use; each contains artifacts that may be handled by students (under the teacher’s supervision) and a teacher’s guide.
The Art Institute offers workshops, lectures, special tours, credit courses, and seminars in arts education to teachers and parents. The mainstay of its education programs, however, remains the school tour. And while museums may have changed, school kids haven’t, and a museum that turns itself into a ersatz school must be prepared to be regarded as one. Kids often resent having a day out spoiled by instruction. Saul Bellow, speaking in 1975, recalled being told by an Art Institute guide that sometimes the spittle of resentful kids on tours has to be wiped from the glass. “Compulsory veneration,” the writer noted, “is bound to come out as rebellion, hatred, and blasphemy.” ●