Guest Column: New exhibit coming to Midway

One of our initiatives at Midway Village & Museum Center is to create new exhibits on Rockford history. The museum owns more than 80,000 objects that relate to our community, many never having been seen by the public or by schoolchildren. A new exhibit will use these treasures to bring to life the stories of Rockford’s earliest pioneers.

This exhibit will trace the history of Rockford from its beginnings in 1834 to the arrival of the railroad and the beginnings of industry in 1854. It will include a number of rare treasures we’ve stored in our facility for years. For example, one of our treasures is a 25-star American flag from 1836. The official flag for only one year, it is a rare and fragile artifact. To conserve it and put it properly on display will cost $4,000.

Other artifacts include a surveyor’s chain of the kind used to plot settlers’ claims according to the rules set down by Congress in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Clothing includes a girl’s blue silk dress, a straw bonnet, shoes and a boy’s suit from 1835, along with a silk plush top hat that belonged to founder Germanicus Kent. Other Kent artifacts include art prints that hung in his home and silver spoons and forks used at his dinner table. Paper and ephemera include account ledgers from Mr. Horseman’s general store. There are city newspapers from the 1840s and 1850s, as well as early city maps that depict the section lines and earliest settled parts of Rockford. All of these artifacts will need to be displayed with special conservation measures to ensure their long-term survival.

We want to display them to reach out to the youngest members of our community. Thanks to your past support, the number of schoolchildren visiting the museum is growing, 19,000 schoolchildren last year. I believe these children should come to know Rockford’s earliest history, through an interactive and educational exhibit. Among these will be an interactive video based on the reminiscences of John Thurston, an early Rockford resident.

John Thurston, who came to Rockford as a boy of 13 only three years after Rockford was founded, published a short memoir in 1891. This memoir will be made accessible through an interactive video. The monitor screen will resemble a window in a house to which the young John Thurston will come and converse as if talking to a neighbor. Visitors will use a touch screen to select from among eight questions about life in Rockford; his replies will be based on the book.

Midway Village & Museum Center is the only museum dedicated to saving and interpreting the history of all of Rockford. The new exhibit on our earliest years will provide real insight to Rockford life back then. No longer packed away in second-floor storage, these artifacts will be visible and available to the whole community.

This exhibit is just the first part of the museum’s long-range plan to create a new, permanent exhibit on Rockford history. A thematic plan will allow visitors to explore topics that relate to personal interests. There will be sections on immigration and migration, worship, responses to America’s wars, transportation and politics.

Midway Village & Museum Center has been successful only with the support of so many community donors and volunteers over many years. I am forever grateful to you and the hundreds of people who have given of their time and treasures so that the museum can pursue its mission. I believe that Rockford’s history is inspiring and insightful for all. Please help me bring this history to light for present and future generations.

I respectfully request that you consider helping the museum make this exhibition of our artifacts a reality with a year-end contribution. The entire exhibit will cost $27,500. Of that amount, $13,500 ($8,500 for production and $5,000 for equipment) is the cost of the interactive video. The other $14,000 is the cost of the text labels. There are several opportunities and levels for your support. To make Old Glory part of the exhibit, I am hoping that 25 “Stars” will donate $250 each to make it possible to conserve and display our 25-star American flag.

To make possible the interactive, dramatic video production of John Thurston’s personal memoir, consider becoming a “Producer” who will donate $2,000 or a “Director” who can give $1,000, or one of a number of “Cinematographers” who will donate $100 each.

To be energy efficient and artifact sensitive, we will be installing a fiber optic system so the cases can be lighted with the energy of one 75-watt light bulb. Maybe you can be one of 25 “Shining Lights” by donating $50 each to help pay for lighting. I am hoping that other donors will consider becoming “Pioneers” for the exhibit at $50 each. Whatever amount you decide to give, you will be helping the museum create something that children and adults will enjoy for years to come.

David J. Byrnes is president of Midway Village & Museum Center.

From the Dec. 13-19, 2006, issue

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