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Chicago History Museum Crowdsources Ideas for New Exhibit

By Paul Biasco | December 10, 2013 9:00am
 The Chicago History Museum is turning to Chicagoans to decide its next exhibit.
The Chicago History Museum is turning to Chicagoans to decide its next exhibit.
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LINCOLN PARK — The Chicago History Museum asked the city to give it an assignment this fall.

The Chicago History Bowl project is the first effort of its kind in the country to allow the public to choose an exhibit at a museum.

"We said to ourselves, instead of hiring someone to tell us what people want, why don't we just go to the people directly?" museum President Gary Johnson said.

About 550 Chicagoans accepted the call and submitted a wide range of ideas for exhibits.

From those 550, two rounds of voting have whittled the field down to the top four proposals.

All Chicagoans are invited to vote on the ideas at chicagohistory.org through Sunday.

The final four ideas are Prohibition, Chicago authors, neighborhoods and architecture.

"Once we have the assignment, we will get to work and make it happen," Johnson said.

A Prohibition exhibit would likely focus on Chicago's infamous bootleggers, gangsters and speakeasies of the Roaring '20s.

An exhibit on the city's authors would examine Ernest Hemingway, Michael Crichton and more.

Neighborhoods are a point of pride for nearly all Chicagoans, and an exhibit on them would delve into history and culture.

An exhibit on architecture would focus on the city's famed builders such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, among many others.

"In the old way of things, museums were sort of about authority," Johnson said. "The spirit of the age is different today. It's a collaboration between our resources and what the public is interested in."

The crowdsourcing effort is the first of its kind in the United States, a fact so surprising Johnson and his staff checked with the American Alliance of Museums make sure.

Some museums have asked the public to vote on a choice of, say, three artists.

"This is the first one where it's the wide-open crowdsourcing," said Frances Hathcock, a spokeswoman for the museum.

Johnson said he hopes the effort proves to be an example for other museums to follow.

While the history museum will eventually settle on one idea for the exhibit, the other 500 or so ideas that have been submitted won't go to waste.

"The level of participation really was extraordinary and surprised us," Johnson said. "I think there's gold in some of those ideas too."