The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of an American Museum

By Mooney-Melvin, Patricia | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of an American Museum


Mooney-Melvin, Patricia, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Changing Face of Public History: The Chicago Historical Society and the Transformation of an American Museum. By Catherine M. Lewis. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pp. Xi, 172. Illus. Notes, bib., index. Paper, $22.00).

Catherine Lewis examines the evolution of one institution, the Chicago Historical Society (CHS), and examines the ways in which it underwent the transformation from temple to forum. The "culture wars" that erupted in the late 1980s and 1990s, she argues, placed museums under scrutiny. No longer did their "elite and sacred status" (5) protect them from becoming contested places. A cacophony of voices demanded participation in the stories told and the directions taken by the nation's museums. The "culture wars," portrayed as something new to museums by Lewis, challenged these institutions to rethink their modes of operation and the sanctity of curatorial authority. Although change in the museum world has been uneven, Lewis contends that today's museums are different places because of the conversations generated by the demands of heretofore museum outsiders as well as a result of changes in scholars' approach to history and in funding mandates.

Lewis's strength is in her effort to examine the late twentieth century challenges facing historical societies and museums as they attempt to confront diversity and integrate it into the fabric of museum operation and interpretation. A number of edited volumes published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, including Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display (1991), Ivan Karp, Christine Kraemer, and Steven D. Levine, eds., Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture (1992), and Amy Henderson and Adrienne Kaeppler, eds., Exhibiting Dilemmas: Issues of Representation at the Smithsonian (1997), focus on this issue from a variety of viewpoints and through short examinations of specific initiatives and/or exhibits at a variety of institutions. Lewis's study represents one of the first full-length case studies of an institution engaged in the process of transformation over the course of a number of years.

Lewis centers her analysis on a series of exhibits that moved CHS from a collection repository to an interpretive site. We the People: Creating a New Nation, 1765-1820, A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln, the Biennial exhibitions, and Neighborhoods: Keepers of Culture serve as her data as she explores internal transformations and outside mandates that fostered a different exhibit culture at the Society and that attempted to diversify the visiting public. …

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