Chicago History Museum – Even Better Than You Think

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Robert Chevalier de La Salle

Bro and I had such a swell time being tourists last November that he dragged Bride to town for a similar excursion this spring. The idea was that the weather shouldn’t be too bad, and in fact might be glorious. Bro and Bride have lived in Houston for over twenty years, and have forgotten their Midwestern roots. Or maybe whatever regulates their body temperatures has forgotten how to deal with the cold. It doesn’t help that all their clothing consists of golf shorts, tropical shirts, and bikinis. My theory is that everyone in Houston dresses that way all the time, because the temperature in Houston never drops much below 80º.

Be that as it may, Bro and Bride got into the area Sunday night. The weather was not glorious. They drove through freezing torrential rains to get to us. The forecast continued cold, with a chance of rain all week. We hadn’t planned anything ahead of time, and it turned out that on Monday, both Bride and Sis had to work. It fell to me to suggest fun indoor activities to occupy Bro on Monday. We both wanted to go see Edward Gorey at the Loyola University Museum of Art, which I thoroughly enjoyed with Cookie about a month ago, but which Bro hadn’t seen. That would have been an excellent plan for a chilly, rainy day, except for one thing. LUMA isn’t open on Mondays. Auggh! Wailing and gnashing of teeth commenced. On to plan B.  I offered Bro a list to peruse, which contained such items as:

  • Target shooting at Glisson Archery
  • The Art Institute
  • The Museum of Science and Industry
  • Chicago History Museum
  • Seeing a movie like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or The Grand Budapest Hotel

That last option was so attractive—or at least the Captain America part of it was—that Bride was willing to knock off work early to accompany us, so that’s what we did. It was a fun movie. I have to take BK to see it.

Why did I share this long, boring list?

Here’s why. On Tuesday, when we hoped to take an architectural tour on the Chicago River, the day started with fog, segued into more damned rain, and then subsided back into fog. Not ideal, especially if you’d like to see the tops of the buildings you’re looking at. We needed a substitute activity, so Bro pulled out my list from Monday.

Cookie and I were planning to meet the others where the tour boat launches,  but when it became clear that it was another day for indoor activities, I called Bro on my trusty smart phone and and said, “So maybe today’s the day to do LUMA.”

It turned out Bride and Sis still weren’t interested.

“How about the Art Institute?” I asked. Cookie is a fellow there and could have gotten us all in. I could almost hear the yawns on the other end. Seriously? I love the Art Institute. Tough crowd. In their defense, they’ve all been to the Art Institute multiple times. Anyway, what Bro, Bride and Sis chose really surprised me. They said they wanted to go to the Chicago History Museum.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wanted to go, after all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be on the list. But I figured I was the only one. When I mentioned it to Cookie, she was all, “Sure, sounds interesting.”

One reason I wasn’t sure people would want to go is that I remember going to that museum a long time ago. It wasn’t called the Chicago History Museum then; it was the Chicago Historical Society. I remember it being squashed-together and poorly lit. There were dioramas. I have a fair tolerance for that kind of thing if I’m interested in the content of a museum, which is why I wanted to go. I’d read about some cool exhibits there—the Jack Delano Railroaders and the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibits, to name only two.

Anyway, that’s where Cookie and I met up with Sis, Bro and Bride. It is no longer squashed together and poorly lit. Once inside the now-spacious interior, we opted for the free tour of one of their main exhibits, Chicago: Crossroads of America. It was quite cool. I wish I could tell you the name of our guide, but I’m hopeless at remembering that kind of detail, especially when I’m not taking notes.

What I do remember is learning that during the 19th century, Chicago was the fastest-growing city in the world. (The town was incorporated in 1833, when the population was about 350. By the time of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, there were 299,000 inhabitants. After the fire, the city’s reconstruction and growth were incredibly rapid, and the population reached 1.7 million in 1900.)

Another great takeaway was  that Chicago owed its phenomenal growth to the railroads. Chicago was on America’s frontier when it started; by the 1850s, it became the nation’s transportation hub, because of its water connections to the eastern waterways and the Mississippi River, and the 30 rail lines that entered the city.

My new appreciation for the railroads made Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography even more interesting. To quote from the museum’s web site:

In 1942, the Office of War Information issued photographer Jack Delano a new assignment: document “railroads and their place in American life.” During the next several months, Delano captured three thousand images, two-thirds of them in the nation’s rail hub—Chicago.

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Another excellent part of our visit was the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit. Here’s another quote:

The Ebony Fashion Fair began in 1958, and over the next 50 years the traveling fashion show blossomed into an American institution that raised millions for charity and helped Johnson Publishing Company reach audiences.

Show organizers overcame racial prejudice to bring the pinnacle of Europe’s premier fashion to communities that were eager to see, in real time and space, a new vision of black America that was the hallmark of Ebony and Jet magazines. Eunice Johnson took over as producer and director in 1963, and under her direction, the traveling show took on new heights as she expanded her cachet and power within fashion circles.

Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair recreates the experience of the Ebony Fashion Fair through the story of Mrs. Johnson and more than 60 garments from icons of the fashion industry such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly among others.

If you want to see the Ebony exhibit, do it now! It’s only there until Sunday, May 11, 2014.

We spent all day at the Chicago History Museum (the café is just fine, by the way) and barely scratched the surface. We didn’t get by the Abraham Lincoln or historical clothing sections at all. I can’t wait to go back.

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