At revamped Chicago Historical Society museum, hot dogs to hot rod make history





The Chicago Historical Society's new name, the Chicago History Museum, may do little to bring in new visitors. But the lowrider in the lobby? That might turn a few heads.

The blue, custom-built 1978 Monte Carlo embodies the museum's idea of today's Chicago: modern, lively and multicultural. And if the lowrider's juiced-up hydraulics, swiveling driver's seat and fuzzy dice don't accomplish getting visitors' attentions, the inscription on the car's hood should do the job.

Translated, the inscription delves into some colorful Spanish slang, so let's just say that this is one bad car.

"That may take a little explanation," says Gary Johnson, the museum's president. "It's not your father's Oldsmobile."

Nor is the museum, scheduled to reopen Saturday, your father's historical society. A $27.8 million renovation and 10 months of construction have rejuvenated Chicago's oldest museum, once a stodgy, drab institution nestled on Clark Street at North Avenue. The revamped museum now sports a shock of colors and accents to go with new galleries and reconfigured exhibit spaces.

Old favorites, like the diorama gallery, have been updated. The lobby has been overhauled and now displays classic Chicago street signs, a two-story mural and that lowrider.

Inside the new interactive children's gallery, kids can hear the recorded moos of cattle or lie in a giant, plush hot dog filled with toppings. For adults, a new exhibition hall features the late Ed Paschke's work.

Some staples are gone altogether. The second-floor portraits gallery has given way to a World's Columbian Exposition gallery. And Big Shoulders Cafe will become the History Cafe, operated by Wolfgang Puck and opening Saturday.

It's a lot to digest, especially for those who recall the society's previous exhibits and layout. Except for exhibits on Emmett Till and Harold Washington, most of the former society's galleries were lackluster. But the museum's new redesign allows for more open exhibit space.

A new winding staircase, similar to the old one but pushed toward the rear of the building, expands the lobby to nearly 7,000 square feet. The museum added storage space to its old 6,000-square-foot Chicago History gallery, creating "Chicago: Crossroads to America," a new 16,000-square-foot permanent exhibit.

The layouts are spacious, with large plaques delivering a lot of information while keeping the focus on the artifacts themselves. Most of the galleries were designed so that visitors could walk from one end to the other, though some visitors may get caught up inside a new costume and textile gallery, which is shaped like a cul de sac.

The changes were necessary, says Johnson, so that the museum could showcase the best of its 22 million artifacts.

"We need to send a message that we're a destination," says Johnson, who succeeded Lonnie Bunch as president in August 2005. "We're not a club."

As the museum's centerpiece, "Crossroads" helps make that case with its chain of five linked galleries. The exhibit begins in a cavernous, brick-faced room where visitors can explore the first steam locomotive to pass through Chicago, actual portions of Ft. Dearborn from 1848 and the city's first elevated train car.

Movers spent 12 hours in February transporting "L" Car No. 1, on loan from the Chicago Transit Authority, from a Skokie storage yard to Lincoln Park. A crane then hoisted the shrink-wrapped car into the exhibit's second-floor space.

Now settled in a replica station, the 21-ton train car--dark green with wicker seats and a canvas roof--solidifies the exhibit's first gallery, legitimizing the room as a collection of Chicago firsts.

Continuing through the exhibit, visitors receive a dense primer on Chicago history. Deck chairs from the Eastland and burnt pencils from the Chicago Fire recall famous disasters. Weber grills and Zenith televisions showcase Chicago's homegrown innovations.

One of two permanent exhibitions, "Crossroads" will have a few rotating components. For instance, a "fan case" lets Chicagoans donate their own personal artifacts for display (first up: ticket stubs from the 2005 World Series).

A small gallery will present art and other works from Chicago's ethnic enclaves, starting with pieces from Mexican-Americans on the Southeast Side.


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