History museum uses 'Magic' to make the past reappear
Strolling performers help institution focus on audience, not collections
August 08, 2012|By Kerry Reid, Special to the Tribune
When the Chicago History Museum renovated its Lincoln Park home in 2006, more than just a building got a makeover. "We sort of expressly shifted our focus from being a collections-based organization to being an audience-focused organization," says John Russick, the museum's director of curatorial affairs. "Our goal, our mission as a museum, is to help people make meaningful and personal connections to history."
But even aficionados of Chicago's rich cultural history in architecture, theater, and music (all of which get prominent treatment in permanent exhibits at the museum) might be surprised to know that Chicago is a magical city in a literal sense. In the current exhibit "Magic," Russick has pulled together interactive artifacts and performances geared for all ages that pay homage to the many magicians — and magic shops — in Chicago who have made the tricks of their trade part of the larger cultural fabric of American life.
Russick says that the topic of magic in Chicago came up in conversation, then grew through focus groups the museum conducted. It quickly became clear that, in order for the show to present a fully rounded experience, live performances would need to be included — a first in the museum's history. So every day, a changing lineup of "strolling magicians" demonstrate the kind of chamber magic initially made popular in Chicago by the likes of Matt Schulien (whose eponymous restaurant provided the backdrop for his parlor tricks); Marshall Brodien (aka "Wizzo the Wizard" on WGN's "Bozo's Circus"); and Eugene Burger, who still reigns as a beloved guru of "close-up magic."
"They are expressing in a physical form the subject matter of the exhibit," says Russick, who notes that one-third of the budget for "Magic" covers the live performances.
The rest of the exhibit includes artifacts from magicians, including a milk can from which Harry Houdini escaped. Russick credits the advice of magic collector James Hagy and the collection of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Mich., with providing the framework and objects for this portion of the show, since the museum's existing collection had virtually nothing from the magic community.
But here too, interactivity is key. Visitors flip through a series of "scrapbooks" to learn what makes the objects — and the practitioners who used them — significant in the magic pantheon. They can even learn how to "palm" a card through a video demonstration provided by Chicago magician Benjamin Barnes.
Another innovation is "Lou's Magic Shop," an interactive "object theater" that uses sound, light, and other stage effects to tell the story of a young girl who visits a magic shop to start learning how to do tricks. Much as Chicago played a pivotal role in the growth of department stores and catalog sales (a history also covered in the museum's permanent exhibitions), Russick notes that magic shops — such as Magic, Inc., on Lincoln Avenue — and catalogs and correspondence courses that originated here fostered generations of budding magicians across the country. Magician Danny Orleans, who performs frequently at trade shows and other corporate events, helped the museum create the complex effects for the magic shop, and Orleans and his daughter, Leah, both appear as characters in the 11-minute show — which features some nifty disappearing acts.
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