Margaret Herath, formerly of Springfield, now of Indiana, has fond childhood memories of going with her father, the late Guerry Suggs, to the Illinois State Museum. "He would take me to the Saturday movies and then we would walk around and see the dioramas. I loved seeing the diorama with the bobcat and wanted a pet bobcat. Of course, Dad said no."
Herath's older sister, Nancy Rosse of Springfield, remembers her 14th birthday trip with her father and brother, Gordon. It was a Colorado River rafting trip that was sponsored by the Illinois State Museum Society. Later, when she had children, her father would often take the grandkids to story time at the museum and then lunch. Both Herath and Rosse credit their parents for instilling in them a love of museums. Rosse says, "When we traveled as a family, we always went to museums."
Guerry and Michelle Suggs loved the museum. Guerry served as both the chair of the Illinois State Museum board, a gubernatorial appointment, and chair of the Illinois State Museum Society. When the Rauner administration closed the museum in 2015, Suggs publicly spoke out against the closing. Herath says, "When the museum closed, that really disturbed my dad as he was such a strong believer in the museum."
Michelle, who died in 2007, was "more behind the scenes than Dad," says Herath. "She would work the phones when needed and help out with various projects."
Both Guerry and Michelle recognized the importance of acquiring artifacts that showcase the culture, history and art of Illinois. Today, the museum has over 14 million items in its many collections.
In 1998 Guerry Suggs purchased a quilt and donated it to the museum's collection. At the time, Herath was working at the museum and Rosse had taken up the hobby of quilting. "My parents saw quilting as an art and wanted to help add to the museum's collection," Rosse says. The quilt was donated in honor of the Suggs' children.
So it was no surprise that Suggs left a donation to the Illinois State Museum Society when he died in 2019. The generous donation is designated for the purchase of items by underrepresented artists or items that represent diverse cultures.
"Both of my parents wanted to add to the museum collections with pieces that showcase diversity," Herath says.
Purchases made so far include collages by Chicago artist N. Masani Landfair titled "Resilience" that explain the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. "Dad would be so pleased; he loved history and wanted history brought to life," Herath says
Several items in the current exhibit Edgewise: Finding a Voice in a World Made for Men have also been acquired. One is a poster of the 1968 Harrison High School student walkout and sit-in to raise awareness of discrimination. Several students were arrested by the police, prompting a later walkout by 35,000 Chicago students. Another item in the exhibit purchased by the Suggs' donation is a drag queen outfit; both Herath and Rosse chuckle and say the same thing: "Our parents would smile at that."
The Illinois State Museum Society will host an afternoon reception on May 1 to launch the Michelle and Guerry Suggs Diversity Collections Acquisition Fund. The society hopes to generate interest from others to donate to the fund so future acquisitions can be made. Donations will honor the wishes of both Michelle and Guerry Suggs to add to the museum collections items that tell the story of Illinois more fully, by representing emerging artists, Indigenous people, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.
Guerry and Michelle Suggs' philanthropy went beyond just supporting the museum. Many organizations benefited from the Suggs' kindness and generosity: the YMCA, Springfield Urban League, the Springfield Project, Memorial Medical Center, Lincoln Land Community College Foundation and University of Illinois Springfield. In 2000 Guerry was named the Copley First Citizen by the State Journal-Register.
"Our parents loved Springfield," Herath says, "and they wanted to make the community better through supporting many charities. The Illinois State Museum was an important part of their lives."
Cinda Klickna, a regular contributor to Illinois Times, is the current chair of the Illinois State Museum Society. For information about the fund and the Illinois State Museum Society reception on May 1, contact Jamila Wicks at 217-782-7388 or at Jamila.email@example.com.