If you had to tell the story of 200 years of Illinois history in a museum exhibit, what would you include?
At the Peoria Riverfront Museum, that exhibit includes:
A cuff link Abraham Lincoln was wearing in Ford’s Theatre when he was assassinated;
A replica of the Peoria research laboratory of chemist Alfred Moyer, circa 1941, who developed an industrial process to mass produce penicillin;
Ronald Reagan’s presidential cowboy boots — artifacts are included from all four U.S. presidents from Illinois;
And such items as Ben Zobrist’s batting glove, an 1837 John Deere steel plow, a chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernie Banks’ 1969 brass trophy cup.
“Celebrate Illinois: 200 Years in the Land of Lincoln” opens Saturday at the Peoria Riverfront Museum with an estimated 230 historical objects representing all geographic areas of Illinois. The exhibit fills two galleries, totaling 7,500 square feet. It is the largest locally curated exhibition in Peoria museum history and is endorsed by Illinois Bicentennial.
The work began a year ago for Lottie Phillips, museum collections registrar, assistant history curator and bicentennial exhibition curator. She began by combing through the digital catalogues of major museums and searching by keywords such as Illinois, Lincoln and agriculture. Then she began the tedious process of borrowing items.
“It takes a long time,” she said. “I had to follow specific standards.” She explained that some items had environmental standards regarding temperature or humidity. Others required a specific level of security.
“Last week the government shutdown got us worried,” Phillips said. “There was a possibility the Smithsonian items might not get here.”
The work paid off with artifacts arriving in Peoria from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lincoln Home National Historic Site, National Park Service, Illinois State Museum and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Last fall, she worried there wouldn’t be enough to fill both galleries. Museum staff all helped and contacted historical societies throughout the state. More artifacts poured in.
The exhibit will be divided by topics focusing on innovations, people and places. For example, “Culture and the Heartland” will highlight artists, writers, athletes and celebrities. There you will find a Shaun Livingston jersey, Preston Jackson sculpture and a first edition copy of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.
The agriculture section will feature engine parts from a 1930 Caterpillar tractor, a model of an 1834 McCormick reaper, and a circa 1852 George Brown Corn Planter. The Native Americans and European settlements area has a wooden trunk that a German family used to store all of their belongings during their trip to Illinois from Germany. It is on loan from a family living in southern Illinois. Each exhibit item will be labeled with a brief history, including who loaned it.
“The impossibility of the task is the strength of the exhibition,” said Bill Conger, museum curator of collections and exhibitions. He anticipates that visitors to the exhibit will look at the selection of items and wonder about those not included and further the discussion and thinking about the impact of Illinois.
“There was no way to tell the entire story of every geographical area in the state or every theme,” Phillips said. “We took the main highlights and are showcasing those.”
Along with the exhibit, the museum is offering a wide range of programming, kicking it off with Family Day this Saturday coinciding with the opening. Family Day will offer a variety of activities, crafts and demonstrations. There will be a performance by the local Civil War Dancers at 1 p.m., trivia games, treats and a unique selfie station.
“We love to help people learn,” said Renae Kerrigan, museum vice president of programs and planetarium director. “The activities make the exhibit come to life.”
Kerrigan said they are offering exhibit-related programs for all ages in all content areas, including key figures in our history.
“Ultimately, the show and the amount of works in there now are the beginning of this kind of quilt of the history of this important state,” Conger said.
If you go
What: “Celebrate Illinois: 200 Years in the Land of Lincoln,” new exhibit in the International Feature Gallery, Permanent Collection and Folk Art Gallery.
Where: Peoria Riverfront Museum, 222 SW Water St.
When: Feb. 3 to June 3. Regular museum hours.
Admission: Adults $11, seniors (60 and older) $10 and youth ages 3 to 17 $9.
Information: Visit Riverfrontmuseum.org or call 686-7000.
Parking: Free parking in museum parking garage and off Water Street.