Celebrate Chicago’s Birthday with a visit to the History Museum

Off the Beaten Path: Visit The Chicago History Museum during the Windy City’s Birthday Month

Chicago’s Birthday remains an obscure, yet important unofficial holiday in the city (March 4, 1837 marks the date the city was incorporated), so what better way to celebrate the big 181st than a trip the Chicago History Museum this month? While it seems a little more hidden than it’s bigger siblings, the Field and Museum of Science and Industry, a little extra legwork is certainly worth the effort to get the best look at Chicago’s expansive and sometimes very weird, history. Following its most recent facelift of the upper level a few years ago to make the first CTA car the centerpiece of a fresh and interesting collection, the Chicago History Museum is worth a look, even if you’ve been there before.

For the locals

As a local, the museum does a great job of paying attention to the details that make the city feel like home. Neighborhoods are explored and exhibits focus on the people who make them up. This winter featured the role the city played in the Civil Rights Protests of the 60s, including images from the local papers that covered the marches and speeches of the decade. A host of rotating exhibits keep the collection fresh for multiple visits and the local flavor comes across in each room as the museum’s love for the city shines through each step of the way. Imagine going through family treasures in your grandparents attic… only if your grandma had a much bigger budget and kept relics from the Chicago Cubs’ recent World Series run next to notes from the world’s first controlled nuclear reactor.

It’s an intangible thing, but the museum just feels more intimate than its more famous counterparts further south. Not to take anything away from the Art Institute, Field Museum or MSI, but the Chicago History Museum can spend less time worrying about controlling the massive crowds each summer and focus more on a personal touch and smaller, impactful exhibits. The unspoken theme here is, “This is who we are and where we came from.” While not hostile towards visitors from out of town, this museum more than the others is designed with Chicago’s citizens in mind and that makes it unique in our book. That also brings us along to…

Out of towner? No problem!

For the out of towners, The idea of the “real” or “hidden” Chicago isn’t a new one. From secret histories of the gangsters to some really fantastic tours that showcase specific neighborhoods, there’s a lot of uncover when you step outside the Loop. The Chicago History Museum is a great way to spend a day as it approaches Chicago from a few different angles. When you step inside the museum, there’s a lot to be learned about where Chicago came from, where it would like to go and in a larger sense, how its residents see themselves. From the low rider in the front entryway to the dioramas that are approaching their 100th birthdays that highlight pivotal moments in the city’s history, the varied artifacts paint a more complete picture of Chicago.

If a stop to see the Bean on Michigan Avenue is Chicago at its posed and proper “best” than a trip to the History Museum is more like a selfie – more relaxed, but also much more human.

Don’t miss exhibits:

The Big – CTA rail car No. 1 is the undisputed centerpiece of the collection for good reason. Take a look at what made up rail transport when the CTA first got started. Fabric seats,  stained glass accents and enough wood to refinish a modern kitchen. Bonus points if you take a modern “L” train to get to the museum for comparison. Sure, it’ll get you there faster, but can you put a price on luxury?

The Small – The Sears Tower’s wind tunnel-friendly “mini-me” is tucked away on the upper floor as a reminder of the time when no one was exactly sure if it was a smart idea to build such a tall structure and subject it to Chicago’s winters. The model held strong and helped pave the way for the skyscraper boom in the 1970s.

The Odd – If you look hard enough there are plenty of quirky little pieces of Chicago’s history hidden throughout the museum. From a wall-sized quote from infomercial king Ron Popeil, to things found in the ashes following the Chicago Fire, this museum has some truly unique pieces to check out. The weirdest? The tomb of Ira Couch in the museum’s backyard which is the only remaining marked grave from the days when Lincoln Park was a city cemetery. While there are urban legends and plenty of theories as to why the Couch vault remains as the oldest structure standing in the Chicago Fire zone, there is no official reason as to why it was never moved.

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