Illinois State Museum still in limbo

By Ali Braboy

By Ali Braboy

Staff writer

Citizens are being denied the opportunity to learn about the history of Illinois, said Guerry Suggs, chair of the Illinois State Museum Board Members.

Since Oct. 1, the Illinois State Museum has been closed to the public due to the undecided state budget. Starting in 1877 with a small collection of geological specimens, the museum has since grown to have collections in natural sciences, history, anthropology and art, according to the museum’s website.

The museum’s headquarters is in Springfield, but there are other branches in Chicago, Lockport, Lewistown and Rend Lake. The museum works to advance knowledge, which engages people about the natural and cultural heritage in Illinois, according to the website. 

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The museum houses collections, which are important for more than just aesthetic purposes. For example, biological collections can be used to find endangered species, the arrival of invasive species and discover new species.

Suggs said it’s unfortunate the museum finds itself as a pawn between Democrats and Republicans without the groups considering the needs of the museum and citizens of Illinois. He said Gov. Bruce Rauner closed the museum with the intention of saving the state money. Suggs said 10 to 12 members of the managerial staff have been laid off; some of those were curators of the museum.

He is also concerned because the museum might lose its accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums, which is “the highest mark of distinction in the museum field,” according to its website. On Oct. 19, the alliance posted a press release stating the Accreditation Commission voted unanimously to put the museum on probation due to the closure. 

Commission Chair Burt Logan said in the release the museum’s closure might affect the museum’s donor support, reputation and the ability to keep a professional staff. The museum has been accredited since 1972, and there are only 1,043 museums in the nation that are accredited.

Terrance Martin, former curator at the museum, retired on Oct. 1 after 31 years at the museum. He said through an email that several of the curatorial staff have also retired, including the museum director and director of science.

“I fear that for the first time in the 138 years of its history, the state museum will now fall under political influences and lose the national and international reputation for being a quality institution,” Martin said.

Although Rauner and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ administration say they hope to open the museum after the budget has been decided, Martin still has concerns. He is concerned about the accessibility of the collections to qualified users, the preservation of the museum’s irreplaceable collections and if there will be a professional and qualified staff to maintain the institutional memory. He said he is transforming to be a curator emeritus of anthropology and an adjunct research associate with the Illinois State Museum Society.

Chris Phillips, curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Illinois Natural History Survey, said his opinion is that although in time the display area of the museum may reopen, the collections behind the scenes of the museum will be negatively affected because of the loss of the curators.

Currently, there is legislation that passed both the House and Senate that would open the museum. It’s currently in Rauner’s office.