Close the Illinois State Museum, cut our collective hearts out

 My little son loves the Illinois State Museum. For him, it’s a place of exploration and discovery. He routinely clamors to be taken to the Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum, located on the lower floor of the museum’s main building on Spring Street. In the span of a morning he can dig for bones, drive a jeep, practice his alphabet, discover local flora and fauna, create artwork and organize a museum collection. Of course, he doesn’t realize that he’s learning while doing all these diverse and wonderful things, which is really the beauty of this space. In his eyes, he’s just having fun.

I love the Illinois State Museum, too. As a museum professional myself, I have the utmost respect for this institution and how it is run. In Springfield’s family of museum sites, it is the studious older sibling, quietly going about its business of preserving priceless and indescribably significant collections, putting together top-notch exhibitions, conducting vital research and hosting high-quality, family-friendly events.

The Illinois State Museum and its satellite sites, simply put, are treasures. The objects they contain are treasures. The education and outreach they provide to the people of this state are treasures.

The tragic irony is that we in Illinois are governed by an individual who seems not to recognize wealth if it is not the dollars and cents variety. How else can you explain his threat to close an institution that houses a wealth of cultural resources and that offers a wealth of scholarship and education to the community free of charge? How else can you explain the threat to deprive the people of Illinois of access to cultural institutions that represent our collective heart and soul, as Dick Hart so eloquently put it?

Seeing this museum close would be devastating. But the thing I dread most, the thing that will absolutely shatter my heart if this closure does come to pass, is the moment when my little boy slips his small hand in mine and asks me to take him to the museum so he can “drive the jeep and dig for dinosaur bones” and I have to tell him that I can’t, because it’s closed now.

“Why, mommy?” is the question that will inevitably follow.

Why indeed? This museum is his legacy, seven generations of cumulative wisdom, hard won and carefully preserved, that was meant for his generation and their kids and their kids’ kids. Why would any leader deny his own people access to their own treasures, donated by them over 140 years, funded by their taxes, cared for by millions upon millions of their volunteer hours? Why would anyone deny the value of our state’s stories, art, history, natural history to its citizens? Why would anyone revoke the opportunity to learn and be challenged and think in new ways and experience new things, when that opportunity can only lead to a better informed, more engaged citizenry? Why would anyone even threaten to undertake this step when the museum’s loss would cost so very much (again, not all costs are of the monetary variety) while saving so pitifully little?

When that moment comes, when my son asks why the Illinois State Museum is closed and he (and hundreds of thousands of little kids like him) can no longer go there to play and learn, I’ll look into his small trusting face, clouded with disappointment and confusion, and I’ll give him the only honest answer I’ll have.

“I don’t know, sweetie. I just don’t know.”

Erika Holst is a museum curator and mother to a curious, inquisitive little learning sponge of a son. Both mother and son are passionate supporters of the Illinois State Museum, and all museums.

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