Public gets chance to tour lesser-known State Museum site

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — David Bohlen opens a drawer at the Illinois State Museum's Research and Collections Center and not quite staring back at you — because their eyes are long gone — are about a dozen passenger pigeons. That's significant because the last passenger pigeon died in the...

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — David Bohlen opens a drawer at the Illinois State Museum's Research and Collections Center and not quite staring back at you — because their eyes are long gone — are about a dozen passenger pigeons.

That's significant because the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, a monument to senseless human eradication. But the passenger pigeons collected in the 1800s live on as one of more than 13 million objects in the state museum's collections.

The public will have a rare chance to see some of those objects when the museum opens its 100,000-square-foot Research and Collections Center for one-hour guided tours on Saturday.

"The real purpose is to give people a taste of the place," said Michael Wiant, interim museum director. "We want to make them aware of its depth and breadth, how we use it and why it is important."

The state museum reopened July 2 after a nine-month closure ordered by Gov. Bruce Rauner in what was billed as a money-saving measure connected to the state's budget impasse, although staff members continued to report to work and be paid.

As part of what Wiant calls the eight-week "honeymoon period" of reopening museum facilities, special events are planned for every other weekend. The RCC tours — the first for anyone not a member of the museum society in several years — are part of those events.

"The exhibits are the tip of the iceberg," he said. "The collections stand as the foundation of the museum."

Tours will be scheduled for groups of 15 people each between 9 a.m. and noon and 1 and 4 p.m. The tours will leave from the RCC lobby accessible from the parking lot on 10 1/2 Street between Ash and Laurel streets every 15 minutes.

Advance registration is required for the free tours.

The back-of-the-house tour features anthropology, art, geology, botany and zoology collections. Museum curators will explain the process of collecting, conserving and studying objects that make up the natural and cultural history of the state.

Visitors also will be able to submit written questions to the museum staff at the end of the tour. Those questions will be answered through social media and in future programs.

An activity for children will be available before and after each tour.

Time to move

Prior to 1987, the state museum's collections not on display were held in the basement of the old Penney Building downtown that is now the location of Prairie Archives Antiquarian Booksellers. Wiant said the basement also extended underneath Robbie's restaurant/bar, and the anthropology collections were stored there.

In the mid-1980s, the museum started looking for a suitable facility in Springfield for its research and collections.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Young says the museum's ornithology collection "is irreplaceable," mostly because the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 made it illegal to possess many birds — either dead or alive — and granted full protection to any bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests.

Bohlen said the information contained in bird field guides — size, wingspan, etc. — came from the state museum's collection.

"We did an exhibit on bird migration at Dixon Mounds 10 years ago and made a faux habitat using this collection," Wiant said.

People's collection

The museum's geology area includes rocks and minerals and both invertebrate and vertebrate fossils.

"The museum has been doing research on ice age creatures for more than 50 years," Wiant said as he looked at bones from Pleistocene mammoths and mastodons.

"The geologic study of the ice age is one of the preeminent studies undertaken by this institution," he said. "Russian scientists have been here to look at this collection. It's an international collection well known around the world."

Wiant said there's a story behind each and every object, including a set of strange-looking antlers.

"When they were working on the National Accelerator Laboratory at Batavia, we were asked to do an archaeological survey," he said. "One of our guys was driving by in his truck and saw this above someone's barn. The guy said he got it from dredging his pond and thought it was from some kind of moose."

He was right. But not just any moose. It was from a stag-moose, a large moose that roamed North America during the Pleistocene epoch along with the wooly mammoth and the saber-toothed cat.

"He told us to just go ahead and take it," Wiant said, emphasizing the number of objects in the museum's collections that have been donated by private citizens.

"It is really the people's collection," he said.

Hong Qian is curator of the botany collection, which consists of 114,000 specimens, more than 90 percent from Illinois. The oldest is 150 years old.

"It's not just dead plants," said Qian with a passion. "They can be used to study the history of Illinois."

He said the museum's online database can be used by the layman to identify plants. The website also can show you how to properly mount a plant specimen.

"We want to expand it, but we don't know when we can finish because of funding," Qian said.

It found the building at 1011 E. Ash St., soon to be vacated by the Illinois Department of Revenue, which was moving to the new Willard Ice Building.

Originally a manufacturing facility built in early part of the 20th century, the building had a lot of qualities the museum needed, Wiant said.

It had size, was all on one floor, and because it originally was a radiator manufacturing plant, had a substructure capable of supporting heavy loads — like boxes of rocks stacked on top of one another.

"A regular office building is built to handle 75 to 100 pounds per square foot," Wiant said. "We needed much more than that."

The state made a significant investment in the building, installing a state-of-the-art climate-control system and installing lowered ceilings made of sheet rock and sealed.

The temperature in the interior of the building is kept at 68 to 69 degrees, with 45 to 50 percent humidity to protect the artifacts.

"It's tailored to the various sections, so it is close but not identical," said Meredith Mahoney, assistant curator of zoology.

'Irreplaceable' resource

Wiant explains that the collections are divided by departments — anthropology, art, geology, zoology and botany. The collections are in the center of the building, which has offices around the perimeter. Hallways are lined with exhibits and boxes of artifacts marked by county, signifying some of the 65,000 places where artifacts have been found in Illinois.

Wiant said about 12 people work there, down substantially from before the museum closed. About half the staff retired or left for other positions in the interim.

"Some of the items are here strictly for reference or research purposes, and some are here for educational purposes," he said. "They are not really quality specimens. A variety of them are notoriously incomplete."

But once the museum accepts a collection for its own collection, such as a large number of items from the University of Illinois Museum of Natural History that closed in 2001, "we have an obligation to preserve these items in perpetuity," Wiant said.

Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology, has been working on cataloging thousands of bird eggs for the past 40 years. Most of the eggs and more than 10,000 bird nests came from the Judge Richard Barnes Collection, donated to the museum in 1947. Barnes, an avid collector from Lacon, was editor and publisher of The Oologist magazine during the early 20th century.

Bohlen also is cataloging the nests.

"It takes about a day-and-a-half to do a box, and there are 170 boxes," he said.

Kitchen sink, too

Visitors on Saturday's tour will be greeted by a giant Kodiak bear and a contingent of companion critters when they enter the zoology section.

"Some of the taxidermy mounts are from our own exhibits and some are from museums that have closed, a lot of mom-n-pop museums," Mahoney said.

Mammal skeletons and skin and preserved reptiles and amphibians also are housed there. The skeletal collection is used for research by other parts of the museum.

"We can find out not only what is it, but find out something about the hunters who hunted it," Wiant said. "We can ask deeper questions about human behavior."

The section has more than 1,000 bat specimens collected by a member of curatorial staff during research.

Anthropology is the largest collection the museum has, with more than 35,000 containers of artifacts, Wiant said. "There is a library of objects that are digitized and may be checked out.

There are rows of what look like ordinary metal file cabinets, but these cost $2,000 each. They're dust-free, have paint that won't gasify and charcoal and copper filters for air circulation. All were paid for by grant applications made by the staff, Wiant said.

Some of the items are so precious they are kept behind lock and key in even more specialized storage. These include a cedar mask from 900 years ago and a group of spear points acquired in the early 20th century near Mackinaw and given to the museum in the 1940s.

Robert Sill, curator of the art collections, said his area contains decorative, industrial and fine arts including farm implements, early radios and phonographs, sculpture, furniture — "a little bit of everything, including the kitchen sink."

He pauses during a walk down one of the aisles.

"There it is — a 1950 Hotpoint combination sink and dishwasher," he said.

There are many objects in decorative and fine arts, which makes up about 75 percent of the collection, he said. Included are furniture dating from the late 1700s to contemporary and the Joy Orozco Doll Collection.

The fine art area is mostly sculpture and includes 1,000 examples.

"We have maquettes (artists' small preliminary models) for a number of public sculptures," Sill said.

The museum also has a vast quilt collection, plus costumes, hats and other items of clothing.

It's a lot to take in during a one-hour tour, and Wiant figures they'll be able to handle only about 60 people per hour total.

"The very best thing that can happen is at 4 p.m. on July 30, the staff re-assembles and says there's an outcry to do it again," he said. "We need to build a much broader constituency."

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Source: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, http://bit.ly/2ate3uc

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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