This is the second of two blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.
“With Chicago, to know is to act.” -Charles B. Ball, chief inspector of the Chicago health department, on the Municipal Museum’s ambitious aspirations
I’ve spent some more time thinking about my trip to Chicago, and really considering how an organized tour of a city so packed-to-the-gills with Gilded Age splendor could reasonably and sensitively contextualize that gorgeous opulence alongside the sort of quotidian social history that I loudly advocated for in Pt. 1 of this series. I do think it’s possible, and here’s why:
In telling Chicago’s history, between all the beautiful buildings and industrial horror stories, I think it’s easy to forget that the city was once a place for radical experimentation. The first things in this vein that come to my mind are the settlement house “mecca” that is Hull House, and the “Chicago idea” of anarcho-syndicalism endorsed by the Haymarket demonstrators of 1886. But even the villains of the age, manufacturing giants like Philip Armour (meatpacking) and George Pullman (railroad cars), were undoubtedly innovators of their time, no matter how greedy and unprincipled. So were the architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, who pioneered the use of steel frames in buildings. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.)
My point is only that there’s more overlap than expected between these divergent personalities and value systems in their capacities to experiment with some then-radical ideas. One of these experiments, that I happened upon while doing thesis-related research, was the short-lived Municipal Museum of Chicago.
I found out about the museum from an article in a 1905 issue of The Commons, a progressively-inclined magazine with a Samuel P. Hays-approved tagline: “treating current events and promoting industrial justice, efficient philanthropy, educational freedom and the people’s control of public utilities.” Housed in the Chicago Public Library (currently in use as the Chicago Cultural Center), the museum sought to get visitors thinking about something extraordinary: the future.
To do this, the museum’s organizers embraced several tenets of what is now considered good public history practice: they performed interdisciplinary research and scholarship, addressed contemporary issues relevant to general audiences, and conceptualized the museum’s function as a form of public service. Displaying and interpreting exhibits, maps, 3D models, photographs, statistics, tours, lectures, and interactive displays, the museum tackled lots of hot-button issues like city planning, public health, and local transportation. It engaged city residents to imagine, to consider, and to take a stand: “Shall our streets and boulevards extend in limitless lines toward the setting sun or shall they terminate at intervals in vistas of beauty?” It was wildly popular with visitors, who were evidently interested by the Municipal Museum’s “devotion to the collection and interpretation of material illustrating the physical and social condition and the administration of the cities.”
This radical approach to museum education was an experiment and, like most experiments, it was unfortunately a temporary one. The museum was not financially sustainable, and it closed in 1907 after two years of free, topical, extremely well-attended exhibitions.
Luckily, the Chicago I visited is not lacking for spaces that promote public history and civic engagement, although I am unsure how much of this activity happens within the area’s museums. While I was excited to see the Humanities Action Lab’s “States of Incarceration” traveling exhibit at Hull House, the most engaging projects I encountered were housed in the very same building that once hosted the Municipal Museum. The Chicago Cultural Center now boasts a StoryCorps office, a Protest Banner Lending Library, and a small exhibition addressing the destructiveness of “urban renewal,” in addition to Tiffany lamps and domes which draw a different type of visitor.
In this example I see two great opportunities:
- for public and public-facing historians to think beyond the confines of the 19th century museum model, even if it means projects are temporary. If museums were squaring the circle of how and why to engage politically-charged topics in 1905, it’s hard to argue that these methods are faddish, extremist, or a product of the 1990s culture wars.
- to provide an example of how to thematically tie seemingly-disparate topics together. The Chicago Public Library building is lovely and important architecturally, but it was also a love letter to the people of Chicago. Similarly, the Arts & Crafts Movement in America produced lots of aesthetically-pleasing homes and home furnishings, but it should not be forgotten that it was inspired by the socialistic and utopian inclinations of Englishmen John Ruskin, William Morris, and Charles Voysey.
I don’t deny that what I’m advocating is not easy or even to everyone’s taste. But in engaging the history of this time period, there has to be space to emphasize that the “Gilded” Age only appeared to be golden. It’s not groundbreaking or offensive to note the consequences of gross social, racial, and economic inequality. There was plenty of innovative courage to go around among our museum forebears. Can we harness our own in their honor to serve the communities of the present?