Chicago Historical Society

December 28, 2004

The highlight of our customary holiday trip to Chicago this year, at least for me, was a short visit to the Chicago Historical Society. Their unfortunately fussy and badly organized website gives no sense of the essential mission of the place, which is a shame. The best exhibits are the humblest and least curated (and, sadly, worst-placed) ones, like the ledger from the garrison at Fort Dearborn or the maps of the stockyards. And they have dioramas! Who doesn’t love dioramas?

While we were standing there, quietly looking over a scale model of the original Fort Dearborn (made of twigs!), we were accosted by Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who wanted us to attend their debate. After recalling that each of their debates went on for more than 3 hours, we politely demurred.

It’s funny, because when I was training to be a historian I was rather sniffy about people who were into artifacts. In my view, which I didn’t change until very late in graduate school, artifacts were for anthropologists… history was about The Word and it was a great mistake to be taken in by the glamor of old things. I guess now that I don’t have to worry about such doctrinal points for a living, I can enjoy historical museums and the spirit of civic pride that motivates them.

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