By whatever measure used, Peoria’s Riverfront Museum is a hit

By Elise Zwicky for Chronicle Media

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year and looking ahead to the future. Located at 222 S.W. Washington St., the museum overlooks the Illinois River in downtown Peoria. (Photo courtesy of the Peoria Riverfront Museum)

Five years since opening its doors, Peoria’s Riverfront Museum is well on its way to welcoming its one-millionth visitor.

But that’s only one way to measure the museum’s success, according to CEO and museum president John Morris.   

“We’re beginning to use new tools to survey audiences about their feelings on the impact of the experience,” Morris said.

Visitors to the museum’s “Emergence” exhibit, which showcases nationally recognized and emerging artists who live and work in central Illinois, are being asked to complete a short survey on an iPad as they exit.

“Some visitors, not all, will fill it out, giving us an indication as to whether the exhibition has worked toward our goal, which is to change the way we think about ourselves in central Illinois as a national arts center,” Morris said. “We’re going to begin to do this with a lot of our programming.”

Children and their parents participate in a science experiment at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. A new “Every Student Initiative” program aims to bring every central Illinois student from private, public and home schools to the museum at least once a year. (Photo courtesy of the Peoria Riverfront Museum)

At the helm for only six months, Morris has high praise and goals for the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

“We’re the only museum of our kind in the United States that has the four content pillars of art, science, history and achievement in a multidisciplinary community museum. We should be very proud of that,” he said.

The museum features five major galleries, a planetarium and a large-screen movie theater.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum opened to the public in 2012, along with the Caterpillar Visitors Center next door, on a block of Downtown Peoria that had been vacant for more than a decade.

“Highlights of the museum in its first five years have to include simply opening.  It was a 13- or 14-year journey since the initial idea and probably even farther back than that when it was first conceived of a museum Downtown,” Morris said.

A school group enjoys a 3D movie at the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s large-screen movie theater. CEO and museum president John Morris said the museum is the only one of its kind in the nation that is a multidisciplinary community museum featuring art, science, history and achievement. (Photo courtesy of the Peoria Riverfront Museum)

During an anniversary open house last month attended by 1,400 people, the museum dedicated  plaques recognizing the contributions of numerous public and private groups involved in building the county-owned structure that houses the museum, as well as the founding Board of Directors.

“We basically wanted to recognize everybody we could think of who was potentially involved in helping to give a private museum a public house,” Morris said.

While the building was constructed with taxpayer funds, the museum’s yearly budget of $3.5 million is 100 percent privately funded. “We invest $10,000 a day in running a fantastic museum that is available to every single person in our whole area. They can come and buy a ticket or they can become one of our 4,000 members and growing for $75 a year for a couple. Our endowment fund just passed the $10 million mark on Nov. 1. So that’s a positive sign of stability and growth,” Morris said.

Program highlights of the museum’s first five years include exhibits such as “Ansel Adams: Western Exposure,” “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” and “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.”

A woman and child enjoy the interactive Illinois River Exhibit at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The museum, which opened in 2012, features five major galleries, a planetarium and a large-screen movie theater. (Photo courtesy of the Peoria Riverfront Museum)

The Titanic exhibit contributed to more than $2 million in economic gains for the Peoria area, including fuel purchases and hotel stays, according to statistics from the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The Peoria Riverfront Museum is a draw for all types of visitors coming to our area,” said Cara Allen, the Peoria Area Convention and Visitor’s Bureau marketing vice president. “The ability to have such a high-profile venue and attraction on Peoria’s Riverfront is an asset and destination driver for all of us to utilize.”

In February, the museum will be the first in the state to host an Illinois bicentennial exhibition titled “Celebrate Illinois: 200 Years in the Land of Lincoln.” Another feather in the museum’s cap is a 31-foot painted bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln that was installed on the museum’s Water Street side in September with the help of 20 central Illinois individuals and businesses. Titled “Return Visit,” the sculpture is on loan for a year by the Seward Johnson Foundation.

Morris is also proud of the museum’s recently launched “Every Student Initiative” that will help ensure that area students benefit from a museum experience.

A grant from the Barton Family Foundation is funding the admission and transportation costs of Peoria Public Schools and Quest Charter Academy students to visit the museum, and museum staff is working with the school district to create matching curricula.

“Our aspiration is to get every student from every school—public, private and home school—in the whole central Illinois area to come to this museum at least once a year and get in the habit of inspirational museum visits,” Morris said.

Looking ahead, the museum’s board is working on a new five-year strategic plan that Morris hopes will include a greater emphasis on using the museum’s own permanent collection, as well as tapping local resources in terms of private collections.

As an example, Morris noted that the museum owns one of the most important collections of wild fowl decoys in the country.

“They’re ducks that were painted 100 years ago, so why are they important to us? Incredibly, they are one of only two art forms indigenous to the United States. Secondly, it’s such an important part of our history as a river community,” Morris said. “It’s an example of a strength we have that we’re not fully leveraging.”

Morris also wants to build on the museum’s communication with the community.

“We’re going to really lift people up as much as we possibly can in ways that are unique to us. We don’t do heart surgery, we don’t save lives, we don’t offer (academic) degrees. We do have objects that tell stories, and stories inspire people,” he said.

For more information about the Peoria Riverfront Museum, visit its website at


By whatever measure used, Peoria’s Riverfront Museum is a hit–