Making sense of history

Chicago History Museum debuts with creative Children’s Gallery


Lisa Stiegman

Spotlight - November 2006

Could those really be raucous giggles echoing down the halls of a history museum? The laughter originates from the Children's Gallery at the Chicago History Museum.

At the "Sensing Chicago" exhibit, children are encouraged to see, touch, hear, smell and even "taste" the history of the city. According to Lynn McRainey, director of education, "Children will use all five senses to learn that history is all around them."

Formerly the Chicago Historical Society (1601 N. Clark St.), the museum underwent $28.7 million worth of changes from building renovations and exhibit restorations to new additions such as the Wolfgang Puck cafeteria and audio tours produced in collaboration with the comedy troupe Second City. The result is a museum that is contemporary and family-friendly.

Kids can ride an antique high-wheel bike or sit in seats from old Comiskey Park while listening to the sounds of the White Sox. In the sound room, children jump on multi-colored spots on the floor to trigger noises that coordinate with images from the city's past and present history. A "Smell Map" has them sniffing the scents of Chicago from prairies and onions to chocolate factories and the Chicago fire while learning their significance at the same time.

At another exhibit, my children loved hamming it up for the camera while watching themselves perform in several scenes including running in the Chicago Marathon, being blown by the wind through city streets, riding on the "L" or soaring over the skyline. Their favorite activity, representing the sense of "taste," was making themselves into Chicago Style hot dogs. It was quite comical watching my children take turns lying down on an oversized bun, while their siblings piled on toppings such as mustard, onions, tomatoes, pickles-all made of lightweight plastic perfect for kids to manipulate.

After leaving the Children's Gallery there was still much to see, but a reminder of appropriate behavior was in order. Other halls contained priceless artifacts and antiques which definitely require a hands-off approach. However, the curators have ingeniously positioned several hands-on activity stations throughout these areas to satisfy the curiosity of little ones. Especially popular was the Chicago Bridges station at which the children could manipulate tiny wooden bridges and boats into different configurations on the Chicago River. On our way out, they admired the 1978 metallic blue Chevy Monte Carlo low rider specifically commissioned for the museum, while I ducked inside the Dior exhibit to check out the designer dresses.

For information visit the museum's Web site at or call (312) 642-4600. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. except Thursday when it stays open until 8 p.m. Sunday hours are noon-5 p.m. Admission is $12, $10 seniors and students 13-22. Free kids 12 and under. General admission is free Mondays.

Lisa Stiegman is a writer and mother of three living in Cary.

Kids Eat Chicago

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