How the Elgin Public Museum made the best of its pandemic closure

  • The Elgin Public Museum will reopen to the public with its regular winter hours starting Feb. 27. The museum has been closed since November for everything except private tours. Museum officials have used that time to pull out thousands of pieces in the collections room to recatalog every item that isn't normally on display.

      The Elgin Public Museum will reopen to the public with its regular winter hours starting Feb. 27. The museum has been closed since November for everything except private tours. Museum officials have used that time to pull out thousands of pieces in the collections room to recatalog every item that isn't normally on display. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull shows off some of the reorganization they've done in the basement collections room, including freeing up wall space for mounted fish.

      Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull shows off some of the reorganization they've done in the basement collections room, including freeing up wall space for mounted fish. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull catalogs a whitetail deer tooth Thursday. With the museum having been closed since November, officials were able to pull thousands of pieces from their collection room and update their catalog.

      Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull catalogs a whitetail deer tooth Thursday. With the museum having been closed since November, officials were able to pull thousands of pieces from their collection room and update their catalog. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull moves a great-horned owl that will be on display.

      Elgin Public Museum curator TaraDawn Knull moves a great-horned owl that will be on display. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/22/2021 6:21 AM

When the pandemic forced it to close to the public in November, the Elgin Public Museum had a rare opportunity.

Sure, museum officials were disappointed. Public is their middle name, after all.

 

But no public meant they had a chance to dig into their collections room and pull out 100 years' worth of items that hadn't been organized or cataloged in a long time, if ever, and spread it all around the museum to get a sense of what they had.

"This is what every curator dreams of doing," museum curator TaraDawn Knull said.

"We took everything out of the collections room, recataloged, reorganized, cleaned the room and now we can put everything back in a different order that makes sense for today," she said.

The Great Hall, as they call their main room, and the regular halls were lined with tables in December and covered in rocks, fossils, shells, and all sorts of taxidermied creatures.

They pulled out about 4,000 items in all.

The collections room is where museums store all their pieces that aren't on display. The Elgin Public Museum's is a relatively small basement space "that you play Tetris to try to get everything to fit in," Knull said.

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One of the things that drove the inventory was a desire to redo the older exhibits. Museum staff can't do that without knowing what they have in inventory, which they did not. Record keeping hasn't always been a strength in the various eras of the museum's 100 years, she said.

To that end, they found some winners. Among them was a mounted bald eagle, wings outstretched, that they didn't know they had. "Once it's cleaned, it's going up immediately," Knull said.

They found lots of rocks and fossils that will be part of a new exhibit on Mazon Creek.

"We've got lots in the works for the next couple of years," she said.

But before they can roll out the new, they're scrambling to put away the old. The museum will reopen to the public starting Feb. 27 with its regular winter hours: Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Every item they've pulled out gets a cleaning, a description and is photographed, numbered and cataloged before being put back in the collections room. Some items without any documentation are being examined by specialists to discern their origins. They're getting there, but it's going to go up to the last minute, Knull said.

And it can be tedious after going through thousands of items. At one point, Knull admitted it became more of a job, and less of a fun project.

But one day at lunch with a friend, a conversation reminded her of why she loves it.

He was talking about arrowheads (of which they have many) and how it's the coolest thing that somebody a thousand years ago made it and held it in their hand and now you're holding it in your hand and there's a whole story of how it got from then to now, she said.

"And I found the magic again," Knull said. "That's the museum magic, everything here tells a story, and look at all these stories waiting to be told. Now I'm excited again.

"This is why I sit here and catalog deer teeth."

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