State museum shares a passion for learning
It might not be the first word that comes to mind when investigating a museum that includes an exhibit detailing 500 million years of environmental change, but contact with the staff quickly brings it to mind.
As Illinois State Museum director Bonnie Styles describes "Changes," the museum's latest exhibit, and as Jim Zimmer, director of art and history, describes the cultural exhibit on the third floor, and as Chris Widga, assistant curator of geology, holds a mastodon fossil at the museum's Research and Collections Center, the passion for research — and making it available to a wide audience — is palpable.
A walking tour with Styles, the first woman to lead the museum, is a nonstop immersion into the depth of research and scientific collaboration that is the back stage of the public displays. She began as an associate curator in 1977 and has directed of much of the development, including the "Peoples of the Past" exhibit — a third-floor area presenting the state's Native American heritage — and the "Changes" exhibit.
"We are the only museum that looks at climate, land, life, people and art on a statewide basis and with a long-term perspective," she said.
In addition to the museum at 502 Spring St., Springfield, the museum has five branches, with 350,000 visitors annually visiting the system sites. The museum began in 1877 as a display cabinet in the state Capitol building.
The museum features three floors of exhibits and education. The "Changes" exhibit, on the main floor, features interactive displays, from drawers of "touchable" fossils and objects at child level, to school age and adult questions and opportunities to learn. Different staff researchers engage visitors in the long-term history of the state.
There are also skeletons of early mammals, which Styles said are often confused for dinosaurs. So far, there is no evidence that Illinois was a home for dinosaurs, but Ice Age skeletons of the mastodon, the Jefferson's ground sloth and the giant beaver made from bones in the museum's collection make an impressive display.
Upstairs, Zimmer oversees both a gallery of art and artists and a cultural display of household furnishings from Illinois residents through the ages.
The household displays begin with early residents and move on into a teenager's room from the late 20th century.
The changing gallery display often relies on the museum's vast collection. Some works are on loan, some are donated and some of the items come from "orphan" museums and collections - as small museums close or the heirs of a collector see a suitable home for the items, said Jonathan Reyman, curator of anthropology.
Downstairs is the The Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum, where young children can indulge their inner Indiana Jones and practice digging for artifacts and preparing items for display.
It is also an area for family programs and one of the unique collections, the Morton D. Barker paperweight collection, with hundreds of intricate, delicate glass pieces.
Finally there is a shop on the main floor featuring work by Illinois artisans.
Admission is free at all Illinois State Museum sites. Information on hours and programs is available at museum.state.il.us.
The Illinois State Museum collections by the numbers:
8 million items in the anthropology collection of archaeological and ethnographic objects, among the most extensive in the country
More than 14,000 items in the fine and decorative arts collection
More than 111,000 items in the botanical collection in the herbarium
More than 200,000 specimens in the geology collections
More than 15,000 monographs and 800 serials in the library and archives (materials include rare books, archives and manuscript collections)
More than 140,000 specimens in the zoology collection