The Chicago History Museum
Backstory and Context
The Chicago Historical Society was formed in 1856 and formally incorporated by the Illinois state legislature the following year. The Society soon developed an impressive collection of mostly historic documents for research purposes; it opened its first museum building on the corner of Ontario and Dearborn Streets. In 1871 the Society was devastated by the Great Chicago Fire that ravaged the city. The vast majority of its collection was destroyed, including Abraham Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. A second fire destroyed nearly the remainder of the original collection in 1874. The Society worked to rebuild its collection, and in 1896 it erected a new, stone structure on the site of its original building. The building, which still stands today, was designed by Chicago-based architect Henry Ives Cobb, whose work included the Newberry Library. In 1978 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
One of the Society’s most important additions to its museum was the acquisition of the personal collection of Charles F. Gunther in 1920. Gunther, a local wealthy confectioner, accumulated thousands of items from around the world, with a particular focus on the Civil War. Among the artifacts in his collection is the bed in which Abraham Lincoln died and the table on which Robert E. Lee signed his surrender agreement at Appomattox. The purchase of Gunther’s collection transformed the Society from a local history research facility into a full-fledged national museum.
In 1932 the growing museum moved into a new building in the Lincoln Park district, where it remains to this day. The building has undergone three major expansions and renovations in 1972, 1988, and 2006. Following the 2006 renovation, the Chicago Historical Society changed its name to The Chicago History Museum as part of a rebranding effort. Today the museum boasts an impressive and expanding collection of over 20 million artifacts relating to Chicago, Civil War, and American history. It includes multiple permanent exhibitions on Chicago history, and temporary exhibits on other topics. It has a large research center containing documents, images, books, and other printed materials that can be examined for research. The museum also operates other programs such as lectures, online exhibits, and the Encyclopedia Chicago project. Since 1995 the Chicago History Museum has also hosted the annual Making History Awards, honoring individuals and groups that have made remarkable contributions to Chicago’s history.
Conklin, Mike. “CHS treasure trove came from little-known Gunther.” Chicago Tribune. August 12, 2001. Accessed March 9, 2018. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2001-08-12/news/0108120280_1_chicago-museums-civil-war-local-museum
“Museum History.” Chicago History Museum. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://www.chicagohistory.org/about-the-building/
Groupon. “Things to Do in Chicago – Chicago History Museum” (video). Posted June 13, 2016. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=J6mrvy6rAAM
WTVP. “Illinois Adventure #1504 ‘Chicago History Museum’” (video). Posted November 14, 2013. Accessed March 9, 2018. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v5RuVfcFOG0
Image 1: https://www.timeout.com/chicago/museums/chicago-history-museum
Images 2 and 3: www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/chi-chicago-history-museum-pictures-photogallery.html