On weekends, the Chicago History Museum is not stuffed to bursting with newcomers to the city, but it ought to be. One of the highest best uses of the information-rich institution at the south end of Lincoln Park is its ability to ground people in the lore of the metropolis. In a place with as much self-regard as Chicago, as much entrancement with its own (fact-based) mythology, that's a vital civic role.
If you try to get by here without knowing about the city's part in inventing the skyscraper, its bloody past as a renderer of meats, or its two, transformative world's fairs, you're a Chicagoan in ZIP code only.
So at the History Museum, you can, in a relative hurry, get up to at least cocktail-party speed on these chapters in Chicago history and most of the other essential ones, from DuSable settling on the Chicago River in the late 1700s to black families settling, tumultuously, in the Trumbull Park Homes in the 1950s; from Sears, Roebuck popularizing the mail-order catalog to South Side clubs popularizing the new form of music known as jazz.
And if you want to know more, there's a well-regarded research library up on the third floor and a well-stocked book section in the first-floor gift shop.
Chicago History Museum is the more populist moniker taken by the old Chicago Historical Society at the time of a 2006 makeover of its multi-winged building, perched like a great fact (and artifact) warehouse along Clark Street, across from the much more elegant Moody Church.
"Society" sounded too effete and exclusive, officials said at the time. More important than the name change was what they did inside the place to soften a stern, 1980s addition to the original, 1930s building.
Even as the brick exterior has remained boxy, the interior space was reconfigured to make more sense, and the lobby, in particular, became friendlier and more inviting.
Now, before you even hit the admission desk, there's a vibrant, picture- and artifact-rich exhibit on the city's diversity, highlighted by a 1978 Chevy Monte Carlo tricked out by local car groups as a low-rider.
It may not have the gravitas of Lincoln's deathbed, also in the museum's collection (and currently on loan to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield), but it certainly conveys the idea that history needn't be layered in dust.
Above the vehicle, old Chicago street signs dangle from the ceiling like a Streets & Sanitation Department entry in a Calder competition. An owl detail rescued from a State Street building stands sentry. Lighted food, gas and barber signs seem to promise more vibrancy inside.
Looking that way, you see a wide, dramatic, circular staircase inviting you up to the main exhibit floor.
There, the star of the museum, a vastly expanded permanent exhibition on Chicago history, lives up to the lobby signs' promise. Almost 17,000 square feet, "Chicago: Crossroads of America" does an admirable job telling the city's story through a series of interconnected episodes.
A wall map helps explain that the region was once part of New France, an affiliation that seems out of keeping with the meat-and-potatoes place Chicago would become. England also made a run at the city, but it would end up not just part of America but one of its essences, a place where waterways and railroads crossed, where keening ambition met ample resources and politicians, social reformers, plutocrats and union organizers clashed with regularity.
The tough chapters in Chicago history aren't avoided, especially in a section of the permanent exhibition called City in Crisis. There, for instance, you can see a mass of iron washers melted together in the Great Chicago Fire (of 1871, you should, of course, know).
And you can learn (or learn more) about the city's race riots in 1919, sparked when a swimming African-American teenager was struck with a stone and subsequently drowned after he crossed over to a "white" Lake Michigan beach.
The exhibit shows that the historical society, founded in 1856, has been collecting for decades.
The model of Fort Dearborn, on the opposite side of the Chicago River from DuSable's cabin, was built in 1898. It details what that first U.S. outpost in Chicago looked like after its 1803 construction, before it was burned in the War of 1812 and then rebuilt four years later.
Two big trains at the center of these galleries are set up as climb aboard exhibits, despite their historical significance. The Pioneer, an 1848 steam locomotive, helped establish the city as a train crossroads. And the last surviving "L" car from the 1890s, with its brass overhead rails and stained glass windows, will spark envy in those of us who have to squeeze into the current model.
"They used to have five-cent days," said an elderly woman I came across during a recent visit, seated in the "L" car talking to someone who appeared to be a grandson. "Sometimes they'd have two-cent days. What's it cost now?"
$2.25, madam, and there are no more special fare days..
Certainly, over and above the place's educational value, nostalgia trips are another good reason to visit the Chicago History Museum. There is, for instance, the obligatory nod to the late, lamented-almost-to-the-point-of-tedium Riverview Park. A painted horse from the amusement park's carousel helps dress up a section on Chicago culture, as does a vintage Bunny costume, unoccupied, from Chicago's Playboy Club. If you could fit in that, Italian beef was not a regular part of your diet.
Chicago architecture gets an area, with not only the expected paeans to Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan but a section on the aforementioned development here of the skyscraper. That section is more about structural engineering than esthetics.
Many of the chapters reinforce what you know, but some will surprise you: The Pill, one of the most revolutionary developments of the 1960s, came out of Skokie's G.D. Searle pharmaceutical firm.
It is easy to spend an entire visit in the Chicago section, which also includes a gallery for temporary exhibits (stocked in recent and coming months with a show of photographs by Vivian Maier, the area nanny who became famous posthumously).
But there's more to the museum, of course. Regular exhibits showcase the museum's highly regarded costume collection. Being installed this week for a Saturday opening was "Chicago Styled: Fashioning the Magnificent Mile," a look at the growth of North Michigan Avenue as a retail destination, illustrated by a bevy of stunning vintage outfits.
A too-brief Abraham Lincoln section — almost an alcove — marks the entry to the old, eastern section of the building.
At the far east, in the section of the building dating to the 1930s, stands the Chicago Room, a sort of grand old function space facing the park and decorated by stained glass windows, including works by Tiffany, Wright and Wright's contemporary, the architect George Maher.
"An elegant space for receptions," the sign said. But perhaps more socially useful is the use I saw a teacher make of the big open rooms during a recent visit.
She ushered her group of second graders into one of them and then said, "Go ahead, jump up and down. Get it all out."
The north side of the second floor is reserved for temporary exhibitions. In the larger space, the museum has done many of its own, including well-received shows on Chicago's Jewish community and its gay community. But it will also bring in some shows, including the current occupant, a fairly vibrant look at the year 1968 (a year the museum itself treats in less detail in the Chicago exhibition).
The smaller space is currently hosting a show of penetrating photographs of the Chicago railways, its places and people, around the time of World War II.
The first floor is less explicitly museum-like. There's a children's gallery that works to emphasize interactivity. There's a remarkably big tribute to museum donors the Pritzker family, complete with a timeline comparing world, U.S., Chicago and Pritzker history.
An exhibition, "Facing Freedom," seems particularly well suited for older school groups, if not specifically for a Chicago history museum. It tells stories of various decisive movements related to freedom in U.S. history, including the organizing of Pullman railway porters and California farm workers into unions, the women's suffrage movement and American Indian resistance at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in the 1970s.
The museum rarely feels constricted, but when you take stock of what all is on display, you realize that the artifacts are many: an Oscar Mayer Chopped Ham & Cheese tin from 1960, a stone ax head from pre-history, slave shackles in a section on Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. This is a history told not just in words, but in objects.
The museum, it must be said, has done a good job making itself relevant to the party-going set. More than just benefit balls for board members, it runs a steady series of evening events and off-premises history tours. One regular event, Chicago history pub crawls, is so popular you can buy glassware for it in the gift shop.
Don't miss: The first-floor room devoted to Chicago history dioramas, on display at the institution since the 1930s, is a little gem of a place. See John Kinzie's trading outpost (without any complicating information about what a, shall we say, complex guy Kinzie was), or see pretty nifty renditions of the Chicago Fire and of horse racing in Washington Park.
Don't bother: The room full of potraits and drawings that are supposed to evoke Abraham Lincoln's time in Chicago make for a pretty bland use of a lot of space. It's hard not to suspect their primary purpose is to decorate the room, unobtrusively, when it gets pressed into service for private functions.
Pro tips: The attached restaurant, North & Clark Cafe, is pretty good for a museum cafe, and its setting, in a semi-circular room with big open windows and a massive 1888 terra cotta arch from the Union Stockyards, is even better. Better yet is the room's second story balcony, with a staircase hidden around a corner. Take public transportation (the 22, 36, 72, 73, 151, and 156 buses get you close) or one of the city's shareable Divvy bikes if at all possible. Street parking is tight and parking in the suggested lot to the north is a healthy walk away and, at $9, not cheap.
Chicago History Museum
When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: 1601 N. Clark St.
Tickets: $14 for adults (includes audio tours); 312- 642-4600or chicagohistory.org