Chicago History Museum keeps the virtual lights on | History | Chicago Reader

Chicago History Museum keeps the virtual lights on 

Departing president Gary Johnson talks about going digital in a pandemic.

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click to enlarge Gary Johnson

Gary Johnson

Courtesy Chicago History Museum

At this outlier moment in our history, every story is about coronavirus—even last week’s perfectly staid announcement that Chicago History Museum president Gary T. Johnson will be retiring at the end of the year.

It followed, by ten days, the announcement that the museum, like every other cultural venue in the city, was closing its doors until further notice. 

Johnson says neither the pandemic nor an atypical $234,000 operating budget shortfall last year influenced his decision. After 15 years on the job, in a position he took after a 28-year career as an attorney, the retirement date’s been on his and his board’s calendar for a while. As for the fiscal red ink: it’s a relatively small deficit, he says, after 11 years of operating in the black.      

Thanks to the virus, however, Johnson’s tenure will be bookended by closures. When he started in 2005—taking over for Lonnie Bunch, who left to become founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and now heads up the entire Smithsonian Institution—the museum was about to go into a nine-month shutdown for a reconstruction that also became a reinvention.

The museum, founded in 1856, is the oldest cultural institution in the city, and it had retained its original name: the Chicago Historical Society. Johnson was dismayed by the fact that many people thought it was a private club—a problem the board had long been debating. When it reopened in 2006—tradition be damned—the “Society” had a new, friendlier moniker: the Chicago History Museum. 

Johnson has visited 350 Chicago public schools with artifacts from the Great Chicago Fire in tow; he says it’s what he’s loved most about his job. When asked for historical precedents to the coronavirus crisis, the fire, “one of the three most famous fires in world history,” is what first comes to mind. (The others? Rome and London.)

“It left a third of the population homeless, but the city quickly sprang back,” he says. On the other hand, and perhaps more to the point, there was also the Depression: “an extended event that hit the workforce and businesses very hard.” The museum’s been a national leader in programming about the history of the LGBTQ+ community (an initiative that Johnson says began before he arrived), and he’s overseen a significant expansion of CHM’s photography collections. Among them: the complete body of work by the architectural photography firm Hedrich-Blessing and, after a 2018 purchase of about five million images, the entire archive of Chicago Sun-Times photographs from the 1940s through the early 21st century.  

There’s a sorry tale behind that acquisition. In 2009, the financially strapped Sun-Times sold its photo archive to John Rogers, a sports memorabilia dealer from Arkansas. Rogers had become a celebrity of sorts a year earlier when he purchased a Honus Wagner baseball card for $1.6 million, and was also developing a newspaper image business. He would pay newspapers for their negatives and prints and, as part of the deal, would promise to digitize their collections and give them a searchable archive. The papers would usually retain the copyrights; Rogers would get to keep the negatives and prints.

In 2010, the Reader’s Michael Miner wrote about vintage Sun-Times photos showing up on eBay, priced at less than $10. By 2014 (a year after the Sun-Times decided it didn’t need photographers and infamously fired its entire prizewinning photo staff), Rogers’s businesses were failing and the FBI was raiding his Little Rock home. In 2017, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for selling items that included a fake Heisman trophy. 

His assets—including the Sun-Times archive—were liquidated in a bankruptcy sale and purchased by another dealer. When CHM heard about that, Johnson says, they feared the collection would be sold off piecemeal and, in effect, vanish. With donor support, they stepped in and bought it for $125,000. 

The first exhibit drawn from the Sun-Times collection was scheduled to debut March 28; now we’ll have to wait until the museum reopens to see it. But a chunk of other photos from that collection have been posted on the CHM website—part of Johnson’s decision, a few years ago, to be a “digital first” museum. The photos look to be mostly from the 1970s: Vietnam war protests; Apollo astronauts on parade; a Gay Liberation Front rally. Oddly, many of them lack a credit for the photographer; CHM vice president John Russick says that likely reflects the state of the collection when they got it.  

Johnson says the museum recently donated its stock of personal protective equipment—used, for example, when working with musty materials—to Stroger Hospital. He’s confident that this venerable institution can weather the shutdown, though it’ll be painful. 

“It’ll be interesting to see how people become re-accustomed to being in places where there are lots of other people,” he says. “Will they shy away from a place that might be crowded? Or, on the other hand, will they crave it so much that they’ll celebrate that they’re in a welcoming place with other Chicagoans?

“To be determined.”  v

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