State museum was dumped in the Capitol basement

Thrown out of its room in 1887

The Illinois State Capitol in 1882.

The Illinois State Museum is a source of pride in the Land of Lincoln, but, like everything else in the state, there are always critics. Some take their resentment to extremes.

In 1887, the museum was thrown out of its quarters in the Illinois State Capitol during a dispute over space. Some of the museum collections were tossed into the basement, where they were buried by garbage.

Construction on the current state Capitol building, which had begun with groundbreaking in 1867, came to a halt a decade later when the state ran out of money. Many state offices and departments moved into the unfinished building anyway, including the Illinois State Library, which was slated to occupy a large room on the third floor of the west wing, behind the enormous painting of George Rogers Clark. Among other recent uses, that space was occupied as headquarters of the minority party.

However, on May 25, 1877, the legislature voted to establish the State Historical Library and Natural History Museum in the west wing space intended for the state library. As a result, the library spent the next decade in temporary quarters.

This arrangement angered a string of secretaries of state, who by law also serve as state librarian. During his years as secretary of state from 1873-81, George Harlow shrilly called for new quarters and more money for the state library, chiding the legislature that "not a day passes...that the library is not visited by a number of citizens who express surprise and regret that the state library is not such as to be worthy of the name it bears."

Meanwhile, the state museum flourished in its new surroundings under curator Amos W. Worthen, who was well respected in state and national scientific circles. Worthen strongly opposed any move of the museum in favor of the library, an argument now picked up by Harlow's successor, Henry Dodge Dement.

Like Harlow, Secretary of State Dement was a devoted state librarian, and continued to increase the size and depth of the book collection. He also implemented a card catalog, much like those used in 20th-century libraries.

Still, the library was relegated to temporary facilities, and Dement's patience was running out. When Worthen left town for an extended period in the summer of 1887, Dement directed the state museum collections to be tossed from its space.

The secretary brought in a furniture moving company, and ordered the holdings of the museum to be moved out and dumped practically anywhere that space could be found in the Capitol. When Worthen returned, he found some of his collections sitting on the main floor of the building (today's second floor).

Much of the rest, including the geological collections, was strewn around the basement. Some became buried by garbage piled by building workmen. Other portions of the collections were shoved into drawers and cases, with little regard for labels that identified the specimens.

Upon his return, Worthen, the curator, was so distraught at his beloved collections in disarray that some researchers believe it actually contributed to his death the following May 6.

While the state museum was pushed aside, the long-suffering state library had evened the score, and enjoyed 36 years in its lovely new surroundings. Still, there were plenty of problems, including a badly leaking roof, which then-Secretary of State James Rose compared "to a sieve." Both the library and museum moved to the newly completed Centennial Building (now the Howlett Building) in 1923.

On Jan. 5, 1961, ground was broken on the current state museum site. The museum had originally wanted a building of $6-$10 million, but scaled down its ideas, settling for a building half that size.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected].

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