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Priceless Civil War Artifacts On Display at History Museum

By Paul Biasco | March 16, 2015 5:53am
 The Chicago History Museum's The Secret Lives of Objects exhibit will feature 40 unique items from the museum's collection.
Chicago History Museum Secret Lives of Objects
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OLD TOWN — Priceless artifacts from deep inside the vaults at the Chicago History Museum, including the table where Robert E. Lee surrendered to the North and Nathan F. Leopold Jr.'s eyeglasses, will star in the museum's upcoming exhibit.

"The Secret Lives of Objects" is the museum staff's chance to reveal the most prized and obscure depths of its collection of 22 million artifacts and documents.

The hope is that the artifacts will tell a bigger story of the time and place such as the tabletop where the end of the Civil War was penned.

"You are standing next to this thing and you sort of get goose bumps," said John Russick, director of curatorial affairs.


Nathan F. Leopold Jr'.s eyeglasses, a key piece of evidence in solving the murder of Bobby Franks. (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)


The table where Robert E. Lee surrendered (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

Some of the items have never been showcased before, including a dry suit that was used in the effort to stop the flood of the Loop in 1992.

"As curator here, you are always torn," Russick said. "You know Chicago history so well, you know the high profile objects, but something you can get drawn to the more idiosyncratic objects, the more odd ball objects."

There is no overarching theme to the exhibit. It is purely an opportunity to let each individual object shine on its own.

The museum wanted each object to be able to tell a story and provide a glimpse into that moment in history.

The diverse collection includes the only bamboo cane that survived a Charlie Chaplin performance, a dipper from the RMS Titanic donated by a Chicago doctor who helped rescue survivors of the sinking ship and the lamp that started the Iroquois Theatre fire that killed more than 600 people in 1903.


A dipper from the Titanic (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

Deciding what to include from the museum's vast collection was a challenge, Russick said, but most of the items were staff favorites that otherwise haven't fit into exhibits.

"There was an informal list of 'Wouldn't it be cool if ...' objects that we were sort of all mentally keeping," he said.

Other objects include the electric typewriter used by Ann Landers, Booth One from the Pump Room at The Ambassador East Hotel, Kaiser Wilhelm II's cigarette case and Owen Brown's Colt revolver, used in the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.


The lamp that sparked the Iroquois Theatre fire in 1903. (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

The exhibit, which opens Saturday, will run through 2016.

To help tell the stories, the museum teamed up with Manual Cinema to create a 20-minute film portraying the stories behind 10 of the most intriguing objects.

Manual Cinema is known for its cinematic shadow puppetry mixed with original music and motifs to create theatrical narratives.

"The goal is to reveal to the city some of the depth of the collection here and amazing stories about Chicago," Russick said.


A gold and diamond badge given to First Ward Ald. Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna in 1897. (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)


Owen Brown's Colt revolver from 1856. (courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

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