Museum of History reopens Merwin Gallery to expand access

By Ken Keenan for Chronicle Media

The Merwin Gallery features almost 300 objects from the Museum’s more than 18,000-object collection. In this display space, objects from the collection will be moved in and out of the gallery regularly so visitors can return again and again, always to see something new.

Patrons looking to take a deeper dive into the McLean County Museum of History’s collection of objects and artifacts recently got a major boost with the reopening of the Merwin Gallery, reimagined to showcase more of the museum’s extensive inventory.

Closed since 2019 because of water damage and the effects of the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, the refurbished Merwin Gallery features nearly 300 objects from the museum’s collection of 18,000 items. The collection documents all facets of life in McLean County, from indigenous people in pre-colonization times to the present, and strives to represent every social, economic, religious and ethnic background in the McLean County area.

The museum stated that its collection also reflects the broader history of the United States, documenting the struggles and triumphs of the community as a microcosm of a larger national narrative.

But comparable to many museums around the world, the McLean County Museum of History typically displays only about 3 percent of its collection in exhibits. With support from The Merwin Foundation, a Bloomington-based, philanthropic nonprofit organization, the museum now has the means to effectively increase that percentage twofold, making its wide-ranging collection more accessible to visitors.

In the Merwin Gallery’s new, nonstatic display space, objects will be moved into and out of the gallery, enabling visitors to see something new upon return visits. Previously, the gallery displayed objects on a rotating basis, leaving them in place for longer periods of time.

“We want to share more of our objects with the public,” said Micaela Harris, the museum’s director of communications. “We saw that gap with what we were able to share with the community, so we wanted to fill it and get more of our objects out in front of people. Each object has a story, so reopening the Merwin Gallery doubled what we’re able to display. It’s an opportunity for us to do something different.”

Harris continued: “We always have plans, but the time we had to reflect with the water damage and the pandemic gave us an opportunity to see how we could make our collection more accessible … more impactful for the community.”

Objects to be displayed in the new-look gallery range from a 19th century phonograph to cellphones from the early 2000s. Harris said a particular display of note will feature items that belonged to Irene Delroy, a Bloomington-born movie star from the silent film era.

“At the time, she was considered the most photographed woman in the world,” Harris said. “We have a display of her personal items and other personal effects — a cigarette holder and other fun stuff.”

In conjunction with the reopening, each object in the Merwin Gallery now has a unique QR code, linking it to the museum’s online collection database at The database contains additional information, historical context, biographical information about the people who interacted with the object, and any related business or organizational history.

“Digital accessibility is a huge thing for us,” Harris said. “We want folks to be able to interact with what the museum has to offer. People who live in Bloomington are often shocked by the amount of things we have. With the database up and running, 1,000 objects each year is the goal.”

Added Harris: “We really pride ourselves on preserving our local history — a very rich history — so the community is at the center of what we do. With the reopening of the Merwin Gallery, the ultimate goal is to share more of our collection by making it more accessible — and we’ll continue to expand on that.”

For more information, call 309-827-0428 or visit