The other day I went to the Chicago History Museum. I'd been there once before, many years earlier when they had a tremendous anniversary tribute to Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran and Ollie, which had broadcast its legendary show out of Chicago. The place seems to have changed quite a bit since then, and for the better, much more expansive than before.
One thing I particularly loved was, of all things, their floor. After you entered the main museum and headed towards the back, the floor was designed as a massive map of the Chicago area with highlights of the city's history and landmarks marked all over wherever you walked.
Not everything at the museum was consistent in the detail of how it was presented, though among the secondary displays there was a fairly interesting exhibit on Abraham Lincoln. But the standout section was the museum's centerpiece, the Crossroads of America section on...well, the history of Chicago.
It's a massive, well-woven area with the history overlapping in a wide range of areas -- early Chicago TV, merchandising from the founding days of Sears and Montgomery Wards, sports, theater, blues music, architecture (that dealt with innovators like Frank Lloyd Wright, Burnham & Root who developed the first skyscrapers, Danmark Adler & Louis Sullivan, and more), manufacturing on a large scale like George Pullman inventing the Pullman train sleeping cars and Cyrus McCormick creating the first wheat thrasher, as well as smaller, individual items but with much personal impact like the Kraft company developing its macaroni & cheese, Sunbeam coffee makers, early Zenith radios and more. Also, race relations, social programs such as Jane Addams' Hull House, Margaret Sanger's efforts that lead to the local Abbott Labs development of The Pill, and the scientific efforts of Enrico Fermi and his team researching the first atomic bomb at the University of Chicago. And this being Chicago, needless-to-say politics, with a focus on the 1968 Democratic convention and the ensuing riots and police brutality.
Most of the Crossroads of America vast space was wonderfully done. I was disappointed that the sports section covering the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Amos Alonzo Stagg, the women's baseball league (that started in Chicago by Cubs owner William Wrigley during WW II and was the theme of the movie, A League of Their Own) and more was exceedingly thin and cursory, though at least they touched on all these. But only touched and with few artifacts on display.
I also wished there was much more on Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. I'm definitely biased there, but considering that he donated his full archives to the museum they had so much to work with. But happily there was attention paid to it, and to the early days of Garroway at Large (Dave Garroway's show which lead to the creation of the Today show which he hosted), and Stud's Place with Studs Terkel, among others. Too little, for my taste, and almost nothing on radio, especially since Chicago was probably the center of the early days of radio. But I did enjoy what they did present.
It will come as no shock that I loved that they had the first Chicago street car -- Car No. 1 -- the only existing one from the era, which you could walk through, along with having a good display on that era and its development.
Perhaps the most detailed and therefore interesting sections was on disasters throughout the city's history. The Haymarket Riots, the sinking of the Eastland just barely off the coast in Lake Michigan, (two years before the Titanic, where 848 people died), a 1919 race riot and the previously-mentioned 1968 Democratic Convention riot.
There was a deeply-detailed timeline of the city's history alongside a model and map of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Though what leaped out to me at that exhibit was a street sign that should have meaning, as well, to longtime readers of these pages --
Jo Baskin Minow is the mother of the oft-mentioned here Nell Minow, and wife of Newton Minow, FCC chairman under JFK. She's on the board of directors of the museum, and it was a nice honor to see.
More on that in a moment. But first we'll get to a wonderful special exhibit they had on blues music in Chicago (separate from the much smaller one they had in the permanent Crossroads display). Not only was it full of rich detail, covering people like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, but there was also a great of hands-on material. For instance, they had areas with an electric guitar display where you could jam along with piped-in music, a recording studio mixing board to play around with, a room where you could design an album cover and even a room that along with artifacts on the walls had two musicians sitting around playing guitar and blues harmonica.
I note this, as well, to bring us full circle to the point I made before. This particular blues exhibit was held in a wing which you got to off of a central balcony --
Yes, there she is again. The Minow Parade continues.
(You can't read it on the plaque off to the side, unless you have incredible eyesight, but our pal Nell even gets mentioned there. Okay, not by name but the description of "three daughters" counts...)
By the way, as much as I very much enjoyed the Chicago History Museum, I almost didn't make it very far into the place. It was a case of bad timing (and honestly, bad management). Which brings us to the reason why in a vent.
When I arrived, there were three or four school groups visiting, mostly with little kids, and it was like being at Wrigley Field during a Cubs game. And I'm not exaggerating much. After all, keep in mind that sound reverberates off the marble walls and stone floors, especially in a closed environment. It was sort of hellish. Just as an example, I had to return a phone call, and it was so incredibly loud that I wasn't able to do it, I simply couldn't hear. I needed to wander around to find a corner nook where it was at least somewhat quiet enough so that I could hear marginally reasonably. (Again, remember that this wasn't at Wrigley Field, but inside a museum.) I understand and even love the enthusiasm of kids discovering things at a museum, but this seemed to transcend that and was separate on a different level. It was your basic yelling and often just running around, not from excitement at the exhibits. And not occasional bursts with pockets of quiet, but non-stop screaming for about an hour. That's great for a playground and at a school assembly and even a field trip to an outdoor venue -- but not in a museum. While I was surprised that there was no effort by teachers to control their students, I was almost more surprised that there was no effort by museum staff to do so. After all, they know there are a lot of other patrons there visiting, trying to read the displays and focus on the material. And I know the museum staff was bothered by the noise themselves, since they commented wearily on it later. So, it wasn't a case of just me thinking something was out of order. I have no idea if this was a daily occurrence, or just a rare event -- but I do know it was bad enough that I almost left. But I figured the groups would leave soon enough, and most of them did within the hour. When there was one school left, they were a bit older, and things from that point on for the next 2-1/2 hours were fine.
Actually, better than fine -- an extremely nice place.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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