Illustration of the ruins of Chicago, Illinois, after devastated by fire in 1871

Neighborhood News: Chicago’s Oldest Cultural Institution -The Chicago History Museum

Illustration of the ruins of Chicago, Illinois, after devastated by fire in 1871

Fun fact of the day: Did you know…that the grounds of this Lincoln Park institution is situated on ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi people, who cared for the land until forced out by non-Native settlers?

That’s one of the many facts unearthed by the researchers and archivists at Chicago’s oldest cultural institution… the Chicago History Museum, aka, CHM, of the Chicago Historical Society, 1601 N. Clark Street. 

Only the beginning… 

Founded in 1856 and incorporated in 1857 by an act of the state legislature, the Chicago Historical Society opened its first building at the corner of Dearborn and Ontario Streets (now, TAO Chicago.) That building and most of the collection, however, burned during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, including, according to Wikipedia sources, Abraham Lincoln’s final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

What kept this museum going? Its mission: 

“CHM strives to be a destination for learning, inspiration and civic engagement. Through dynamic exhibitions, tours, programs, digital resources, and special events, the Museum connects people to Chicago’s history and to each other.”

By All Means, Keep Going

Enter Charles Guenther, a German-American wealthy confectioner, politician, and collector. He purchased many of the items now owned by the Chicago History Museum and served two terms as a Chicago alderman from the city’s 2nd Ward. He donated his collection  to Chicago Historical Society archives, including garments allegedly worn by Mary and Abraham Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on the night of the April 1865 assassination, and stained bed linens from the Petersen’s boarding house where the president died. To this day, this collection also contains Lincoln’s deathbed, the table on which General Robert E. Lee signed his 1865 surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Expanding to Lincoln Park

After 36 years on North Dearborn Street, the museum and library moved to the current complex in Lincoln Park. The oldest part of the museum, designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, was built in 1932 by the WPA. In the ensuing years, the Museum has had two major expansions, in 1972 and 1988, which expanded exhibition galleries, the museum’s store and public cafe. 


As Wikipedia sources note, the museum houses Chicago’s most important collection of materials related to local history. The extensive research library includes books and other published materials, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, and photos exploring both Chicago and American history, with approximately 22 million holdings. 

Debunking Myths… “All It Needed Was A Spark”

It’s not Mrs. O’Leary’s fault. Nor the cow. As the New York Times describes the exhibit “City on Fire: Chicago 1871,” on display through August 2025, “the exhibition follows the path of the fire, from the barn of the Irish immigrant O’Leary family where it is believed the fire began, traveling east and north through the city. Visitors can learn about the fire’s destruction, the decisions citizens made as they fled and the city’s recovery efforts that eventually led to new fire safety procedures.”

Other Must-See Exhibits 

Chicago: Crossroads of America is a 16,000-square-foot space that explores the city’s development and its relationship to and influence on American history. Nearly 600 objects document the people and events of the past 200 years. For example, “Climb aboard L car no. 1, visit a jazz club, picture yourself in the fashions of a Marshall Field’s store window, and learn what makes Chicago home sweet home.”

Facing Freedomfocuses on eight American conflicts over freedom from the 1850s to the 1970s. The Sensing Chicagoinvites children to use their senses to discover the past. Children can ride a high-wheel bicycle, hear the Great Chicago Fire, catch a fly ball at Comiskey Park, and dive into a giant Chicago-style hot dog!

Coming Soon! 

In May, the museum will hostBack Home: Polish Chicagofeaturing artifacts, documents and reproduced photographs to help tell the story of the Chicago area’s vibrant Polish communities from the mid-1800s to today. CHS explores personal narratives, music, community involvement, as well as art installations from five local Polish artists.

This exhibition is a collaborative project and oral history initiative with the Polish History Museum (Warsaw, Poland), Polish Museum of America, and Loyola University Chicago Polish Studies program.

The museum is open Tuesday–Saturday from 9:30am–4:30 pm, and Sunday from noon-5pm. Also, the Museum is open on select Mondays and commemorative days. For tickets and information, click here

Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago