Even amidst the somber uncleanliness of Chicago one sees the light of a new epoch, the coming of new conceptions, of foresight, of large collective plans and discipline to achieve them, the fresh green leaves, among all the festering manure, of the giant growths of a more orderly and more beautiful age.
– H.G. Wells, English writer, from The Future in America: A Search after Realities, 1906, Chapter IV, “Growth Invincible: The Tail of Chicago”
Somehow we missed it on our family vacation this past June. Luckily, I found it in December. I’m talking about The Chicago History Museum (1601 North Clark Street, 60614, 312.642.4600), which is located at the south end of Lincoln Park. You know this jam-packed, two-story museum has to be good because the city has such a rich history. I was not disappointed. The special exhibits, however, provided an additional and unexpected dimension.
Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair
Eunice Johnson was the wife of John H. Johnson and an executive of the Johnson Publishing Company, but she was best known as the founder and director of Ebony Fashion Fair, which began as a hospital fundraiser in New Orleans in 1958 and soon became a popular traveling fashion show that spanned half a century in 200 cities in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, and raised more than $50 million for charity. The exhibit featured more than 60 spectacular outfits, of which unfortunately no cameras were allowed to take photos. I didn’t even try to sneak a few, though I was sorely tempted.
In addition to the fashions by Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent, fashions by emerging African-American designers were selected by Mrs. Johnson, who, with her husband, founded The Negro Digest, which was styled after Reader’s Digest, in 1942. The success led to the establishment of Ebony, which was styled after the magazine Look, and Jet. Fascinating filmed interviews revealed what a groundbreaker Mrs. Johnson was. She pushed her way into the high fashion world when the industry looked upon African-Americans as a segment of the population that neither had the money nor were interested in fashion. According to one interview, they didn’t know what to make of her or what to do with her, which can also mean a certain freedom in blazing one’s trail. The success of her fashion fair proved the industry wrong, but she also opened doors for African-American models, who were never used before until her shows, and African-American fashion designers. Mrs. Johnson was inspiring, indeed. Just as important, she was courageous and visionary. The exhibit ends January 5th.
American Heroes: World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional Gold Medal
I thought it was interesting that the museum was a stopping place for the national tour exhibit: American Heroes: World War II Nisei Soldiers and the Congressional God Medal, which actually closed Sunday, December 8. In 2011, Congress finally recognized the bravery and dedication of Nisei servicemen from the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service. Many young men, who were taken from their homes and communities and interned in inhospitable camps, joined the military to show their allegiance. Here’s the Chicago connection: Once many of these families were released, they relocated to the Windy City to escape the racism that was still rampant in their hometowns on the West Coast. It’s a small but powerful exhibit. Hopefully you can find it in your city as the exhibit continues its travels.
Chicago: Crossroads of America
A mini museum that could rightfully call itself the Chicago History Museum all by itself, this exhibition takes you from the beginning when the region was home to otters and trappers and Native Americans roamed the frontier to its myriad transformations. Chicago was infamous for having the country’s largest stock yard, smells and all. Everybody knows about Old Mother Hubbard, whose cow did not kick a lantern in the shed on October 10, 1871, in what was to be known as the Great Chicago Fire. The Haymarket Massacre occurred on May 4, 1886, when laborers who were advocating for an eight-hour workday clashed with police and a bomb was thrown into the crowd, resulting in deaths and injuries. You’ll find the usual suspects as historical subjects: Gangs, strife at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Jane Addams and her Hull House, the founding of several famous retail companies such as Marshall Field and Crate and Barrel and Sears, famous inventors such as the German immigrant who built the first Schwinn bicycle, and the citywide parties – World’s Columbian Exposition, which debuted in 1893, and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
Siam: The Queen and the White City
In 1893, The World’s Columbian Exposition brought Queen Savang Vadana to Chicago. The queen contributed many beautiful artifacts for Siam’s exhibition, including her own intricate handiwork in a photo album that was presented to the chair of the Board of Lady Managers. This small exhibit provided a glimpse into the art and culture of Thailand right before the 20th century. Unfortunately no photos were allowed to be taken here.
One of my favorite exhibits was called Facing Freedom, which examines eight conflicts over freedom from the 1850s to the 1970s. Most notably to me was the conflict of the farm workers in California, specifically in Delano! A pleasant surprise and treat for me! I really liked this exhibit because it put a laser focus on the different threats to our freedom, whether it be women’s right to vote or Native Americans’ rights, and took a deep dive into each conflict, such as the Pullman Strike of 1894 involving the railroad labor force. A fascinating and educational exhibit!
There are other galleries and wings with great permanent exhibits, including Vivian Maier’s Chicago, an extensive photography collection by a nanny whose career spanned 40 years but who spent her after hours taking myriad photographs of her city. A talented street photographer, Maier shot portraits that capture perfectly a nostalgic feel for a bygone generation. Her photographs were not discovered until after her death in 2009 at the age of 83. There were two permanent exhibits on Abraham Lincoln and a traveling exhibit of a rare printed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln in 1863.
It’s such a treat to find gems like the Chicago History Museum and learn a lot about what shaped and continues to shape such a wonderful city. The next time you are in town, check out this museum. You’ll come away with stories to share at your next dinner party.