Celebrate Illinois exhibit stoking pride in Prairie State

By Tim Alexander For Chronicle Media

The original, hand-crafted “plow that broke the prairie” made by John Deere in Grand Detour in 1837, on loan from the Smithsonian. (Photo by Tim Alexander/for Chronicle Media)

Almost 70 percent of Illinoisans who have passed through the “Celebrate Illinois: 200 Years in the Land of Lincoln” exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum reported the collection of historic artifacts and achievements made them feel more proud to call the state their home.

“This was really the goal of the exhibition,” said Lottie Phillips, exhibition curator, last week. “We haven’t had too many negative responses, so we do think we are hitting our goal that visitors take away an interest and a pride in the state’s history. Going through the exhibit gives people an opportunity to see just how many amazing individuals lived and worked in the state of Illinois, and how they made positive, lasting impacts.”

The one-of-a-kind 200 Years exhibit, which is part of the state’s comprehensive bicentennial celebration, tells the story of the state and its great innovators through more than 240 historical objects and the narratives of notable Illinoisans. Artifacts are exhibited from four U.S. presidents, military veterans, artists and authors, inventors and scientists, farmers and pioneers, Native Americans, immigrants, athletes and celebrities, and others. The items are borrowed from university collections, historical societies and other museums.

A salesman’s model of Cryus McCormick’s revolutionary thresher. (Photo by Tim Alexander/for Chronicle Media)

The articles include items owned by or attributed to Illinois residents such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Everett Dirksen, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright, Betty Friedan, Susan G. Komen, Scott Altman, John Deere, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Richard Pryor and many other influential and notable Prairie Staters. In addition, sports-related items from famous athletes such as Michael Jordan, Ernie Banks, Jim Thome, Ben Zobrist are featured.

“The items of greatest interest have been the presidential items — especially Lincoln’s cufflink, one of two worn the night he was assassinated, and the White House desk at which he likely wrote the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Cathie Neumiller, vice president of marketing and communications for the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

“Ben Zobrist’s gloves and the batting helmet he was wearing during his 2016 World Series game-winning 10th-inning hit in Game 7 are popular, as are the items representing Jim Thome. Also very popular are the agricultural items, such as John Deere’s plow, George Brown’s planter and the (Cyrus) McCormick reaper model. The amazing paintings by the Chicago imagists are also popular.”

Equipment used to cultivate penicillin during World War II at the USDA Peoria Ag Lab. (Photo by Tim Alexander/for Chronicle Media)

The art section of the exhibit showcases famous artists, writers and poets whose Illinois heritage are often overlooked, Phillips added. “When the prairie poets, Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters were popular, they were popular on a world and national level. When you think about an art movement, you think about the west coast or somewhere in Europe. The takeaway is that it’s often easy to think that art and literature movements do not happen here in the Midwest. We have had both here in Illinois.”

Thousands of K-8 Peoria public schools students had already been through the exhibit as of April 20, according to Neumiller. They were able to attend as part of the museum’s donor-driven Every Student Initiative, which allows public school students free admission to museum exhibits. “The Initiative provides experiences that match their curricula,” she said. “They study aspects of the bicentennial and then get to see the real objects.”

The exhibition began with a press conference on Feb. 3 and wraps up on June 3, leaving plenty of time to plan a family outing to the Peoria Riverfront Museum, said Neumiller.

The batting helmet and gloves worn by Ben Zobrist when he delivered the tie-breaking hit as a member of the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning of 2016 World Series game seven. (Photo by Tim Alexander/for Chronicle Media)

“There has been enormous statewide interest in the exhibition,” she noted. “We’re official partners with the Illinois Bicentennial Commission and the exhibition is an official event. Our exhibition here in Peoria is the state’s only comprehensive bicentennial exhibition.”

A 31-foot bronze sculpture of Lincoln, “Return Visit,” was installed facing the Illinois River on the outer east side of the museum, with the assistance of local businesses and individuals, to usher in the Illinois bicentennial and the Celebrate Illinois exhibit.

Also as part of the celebration, a special film and lecture series was developed to explore interesting aspects of Illinois history and culture. A presentation by historian Bernie Drake on “Illinois and the Civil War” is scheduled for May 19 (members free; $4 public) to round out the series.

Regular museum entry fees apply for the Celebrate Illinois exhibit. Visit www.riverfrontmuseum.org for days and hours of operation, driving directions and museum information, or call 309-686-7000 to learn more.






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