Museum preserving DuPage County's rich history

In the afternoon, on sunny days, light flows through the auditorium's 2,800 pieces of stained glass like honey in motion, and Michelle Podkowa feels at home.

Podkowa is Museum manager and educator at the DuPage County Historical Museum, housed in the old Adams Memorial Library building at 102 E. Wesley St. in Wheaton. Early on, she identified the museum - the only institution dedicated to preserving and displaying the county's history - as the place she wanted to work.

"When I first interviewed for an internship over six years ago, I was astounded at the different projects and forward thinking the museum staff had," she said. "I knew I needed to be a part of this museum. The visitors know so much about the history of the county and I enjoy learning from them as much as I enjoy teaching them."

Curator Ashley Downing is one of the chief intellects behind the institution's semiannual exhibits. Currently on display are Fun Unplugged, a series of three exhibits exploring childhood toys and pastimes before electricity, and Wedding Traditions Unveiled, a study of local wedding traditions and fashions from the Victorian Era onward.

Opening this September is From Flame to Fluorescent.

"For thousands of years there was hardly any change in lighting, until the Industrial Revolution," Downing said. "As soon as that happened, lighting sources, design and materials started changing drastically. Most people take for granted how much the change in lighting and electricity influenced our lives."

Before electricity, some riskier methods of illumination were tried.

"Many old movies show dramatic scenes where a girl throws a lamp against a wall and the entire house burns down practically in seconds. Hollywood wasn't wrong in that re-creation. There's a type of fluid - nicknamed 'liquid gunpowder' - that caused thousands of deaths and injuries, and even burned down parts of cities. People loved the way it burned but sometimes forgot just how dangerous it was," Downing said.

The museum's long-term exhibit development process provides Downing with deep knowledge of the historical artifacts in the spotlight.

"We have an exhibit schedule that goes out to 2022," she said. "Ideas come from anywhere. For our larger exhibits we will borrow some material from private donors and other museums, but for smaller exhibits we want it to contain our own collections."

Partnering with the Wheaton Public Library, museum staff will interview interested residents in preparation for the debut of Changing America, a traveling exhibit presented by the Smithsonian and the American Library Association and made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, arriving Jan. 25, 2017.

Changing America focuses on two years and two events separated by a century - the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the March on Washington of 1963 - and will use oral histories.

"We're hoping in the next few years there will be enough audio clips that we can make them one of the hands-on elements in most of our exhibits," Downing said.

To learn more about the museum and its upcoming events, visit Daily admission to the museum is free.

"It really is a treasure trove of history and I am constantly learning more about individuals from the origins of the county to the people and events of today," Downing said. "It's fun having the opportunity to explore, and I still feel like I haven't made a dent in learning about what the museum actually contains."

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