Elgin Public Museum celebrates 100th anniversary without the public -- for now
It's not an easy time to be a public museum when you can't invite the public inside.
And it's even more frustrating to be the Elgin Public Museum celebrating its 100th anniversary with a new exhibit that no one can come and see.
So how did they celebrate an anniversary inside a closed museum?
They flew a kite. More on that later.
Long before the pandemic closed the museum's doors, officials had been working on an exhibit celebrating its 100 years and highlighting the history of a place that highlights the history of a place.
"Our overarching goal was to tell a comprehensive history of this museum's origin, development and relationships with the city of Elgin," said Joe Sarr, special exhibits coordinator. "This is one of Elgin's oldest cultural institutions, but it seems like it has always operated somewhat outside of the public eye.
"Even today, we meet longtime residents who are just now learning about us," Sarr added. "So shining a spotlight on our history not only provides us with an opportunity to draw attention to the museum itself, but also to demonstrably show the public how long we have played a role in shaping Elgin's cultural and community histories."
The natural history and anthropology museum officially opened Nov. 12, 1920, as the Elgin Audubon Museum.
"With any exhibit, it's the connection to the people, the connection to the community," said TaraDawn Knull, the museum's curator.
"We wanted to make sure that our connection to Elgin was really represented very well, and Joe has done a wonderful job telling the story."
The exhibit, which will be open as soon as COVID-19 mitigations allow, features historical items from the museum's 100 years, and the history of the exhibits within the museum.
Tillie, a popular bear that was brought to the Lords Park Zoo in 1934 and has been on display taxidermied since her accidental death two years later, has been an icon of the museum and is center-stage in the exhibit. To add depth to her history there, the exhibit features her story and photos of her on display in other eras of the museum.
"It makes the history more tangible if visitors can actually see what happened here and how things have changed," Sarr said. "The objects we chose are also representative of each era of the museum's past."
Some, like Tillie, highlight the museum's relationship with Lords Park Zoo and other local institutions. Many are accompanied by archival photos of those same objects taken decades ago, "highlighting continuity between the modern museum and its previous incarnations," Sarr said.
There is a companion book written by Education Coordinator Sharry Blazier. "Elgin's White Elephant: The 100th Anniversary of the Elgin Public Museum." It will be released "as soon as we get it back from the printer," which Blazier said should be soon.
Blazier said they'll post on their Facebook page (facebook.com/elginpublicmuseum) as soon as it's available, or people can call and make a reservation to pick up the $15 book. All proceeds go directly back to the museum.
Back to the kite. Records show that when George P. Lord founded the park that bears his name, he had several covenants with the city that applied to all the land and buildings therein.
"He had all these crazy rules," Knull said.
They knew they didn't want to break the rule about no alcohol, since it definitely still applies. "But there are rules that you can't race a carriage more than six miles per hour, no speeches, no picking flowers, there's a whole bunch," Knull said.
And you can't fly a kite.
So to celebrate the museum's 100th on Nov. 12, Marge Fox, an 87-year-old educator at the museum, flew a kite inside the original building. Or at least she and Knull and Blazier did their best impression of indoor kite flying.
Because they couldn't do much else.
"And just because it was the dumbest rule of all," Knull said.