A new exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum harvests artifacts with local ties to Chicago's world's fairs, but nothing hits closer to home than a series of prints discovered right under the building's roof.
Forgotten and neglected for decades, the photographic prints were nestled in the attic eaves of the Glos Mansion until 1976. In a storyline made for one of those treasure-hunting shows exploding on cable TV these days, a museum staff member stumbled on the prize shortly after the museum moved from the Wilder Mansion to the landmark on Park Avenue.
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The prints are finally getting their time in the spotlight in "Elmhurst Goes to the Fair," a tandem exhibit that fills the museum's second floor. A national touring exhibit -- "Centuries of Progress: American World's Fairs: 1853-1982" -- is making its Midwestern debut on the museum's first floor.
The prints, a tad yellowed and faded, capture images by Charles D. Arnold, an official photographer at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.
"You had to pay a certain fee that was really expensive to use your own camera or you had to buy prints," explains Lance Tawzer, the museum's curator of exhibits.
Tawzer poached the museum's own collection for the second-floor gallery, choosing fair memorabilia and other pieces from a wide swath of Elmhurst's political and artistic leaders.
An intricately carved bench sits on the left side of the space, a gift from a Chinese businessman to Henry Glos, Elmhurst's first village president and owner of the mansion, during the 1893 fair.
A detailed panel on Thomas Barbour Bryan reveals the Elmhurst resident's efforts to bring a world's fair to Chicago -- no small feat in the years after the city suffered the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Yet Tawzer says the lawyer and gifted speaker persuaded and recruited foreign dignitaries.
"He was a real mover and shaker," Tawzer said. "He was definitely part of the Chicago elite."
Turn right, and a scrapbook by Dorothy Brush chronicles seven trips the 15-year-old Elmhurst girl made to the 1933 fair.
"We're trying to celebrate a particular community experiencing these two fairs in Chicago rather than really describe what they were," Tawzer said.
Downstairs, the "Centuries of Progress" touring exhibit organized by ExhibitsUSA presents artifacts from the collection of the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del. Posters, photographs and souvenirs are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.
"As a history museum, we usually try to tell the stories chronologically, but in this case, you would end up with redundancy if you did," Tawzer said.
The exhibit spotlights technological innovation at stateside fairs, where iconic products like the Ford Mustang and nylon stockings were introduced. A video installation praises the use of plastics in the 1960s, showing a pair of dancers -- with knee-high boots, no less -- singing, "You have got a plastic friend."
"In many ways, it was a cultural spectacle where people were sort of getting to experience these things that they wouldn't normally get to unless they traveled the country and traveled the world," Tawzer said.
"We probably will never see that sort of spirit again because we're so globalized and so connected."
While Tawzer was intrigued by what he calls an "almost Olympic spirit" in world's fairs, he typically resists traveling exhibits.
"I usually don't book them unless I can figure out a way to make it more relevant to people in our community," he said.
But exploring the upstairs artifacts from the Elmhurst collection, visitors can appreciate the workings of world's fairs and the local connections.
"That's our mission, to do something that has a broad appeal but bring it home whenever we can," Tawzer said.
It's a recipe that aligns with a museum strategic goal.
"We're kind of trying to be more of a regional entity," said Patrice Roche, marketing and communications specialist. "We're trying to get people from throughout the Chicago area to have an interest in coming to see us."
The exhibit experience also expands to other programs and events, including the "It's History: Saving a Century of Progress" presentation by Todd Zeiger.
The director of the northern regional office of Indiana Landmarks will discuss the history and restoration of the "Homes of Tomorrow," five structures showcased at the 1933 fair that were transported across Lake Michigan to Beverly Shores, Ind. The free presentation is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, at the museum's education center.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 6 at the museum, 120 E. Park Ave. General admission is free. Public gallery hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For details, call (630) 833-1457 or visit elmhursthistory.org.