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Facility Management Focus

Museums and Nature Centers

Unique Facilities, Untold Partners

by Becky Karoliussen

At the Downers Grove Historical Museum, you can take the family to visit a Civil War encampment or fill your lunch hour with a lecture series on collecting anything from antique clothes to photographs. At Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center in Olympia Fields, corporations and community groups alike can test their skills on a teams course or wander through miles of trails. And at the DuPage County Forest Preserve's Kline Creek Farm visitors can experience life on a working 1890s farm—what people ate, how they made their clothes and utensils, and what their daily life was like.

Across the state, park districts and forest preserve districts have actively embraced a different dimension of leisure activities—nature centers and museums. From art to nature to recreated historical villages, these special types of facilities offer residents creative, educational and unique activities while at the same time preserving valuable cultural and natural resources. More than 85 park districts and forest preserves count museums among their facilities. In several cases—including Rockford, Chicago, DuPage County, Kane County and Peoria—agencies have more than one museum. Add to this the number that own and maintain historical buildings and you have a healthy percentage of agencies that have made a commitment to educating and preserving through nature centers and museums. This is an especially significant number in light of the financial and physical requirements of these facilities and the collections they maintain.

Filling a Niche

The partnership between educational facilities and park and forest preserve districts, though hardly new, is perhaps more significant now than ever before. Nature centers fill an important niche by giving the public access to beautiful forests and prairies as well as unique educational opportunities.

Environmental issues, though always important, have attracted more and more attention in recent years. School curriculums show a greater emphasis on the environment and so do the media. Even the public relations campaigns of large corporations reflect the status of environmental issues. The effects of urban sprawl have given rise to a greater need for open space. In many areas experiencing rising crime rates, a visit to protected and staffed facilities offers an appealing option for families and individuals.

Not only are the educational and recreational aspects significant, but so are the often overlooked psychological benefits. Nature centers put us in touch with the fundamental elements of our world. Once there, we become surrounded by new sights and sounds and smells. And they can ground us, by giving a perspective of the world that is perhaps more peaceful, aesthetically pleasing, interesting and exciting than our day-to-day environments.

The role of museums in communities has changed with the Baby Boomer trend. The Boomers are aging, and as they do, their interests change. Studies have found that cultural participation among adults (i.e., a visit to a museum) increases throughout middle age.

Other studies of travel trends indicate that people are spending less money than they did in the 1980s, moving away from escapism and toward enrichment. They are looking for something different yet affordable. With reasonable or nonexistent admission fees, convenient locations, excellent facilities and educational programs, museums are attracting these Baby Boomers now more than ever. Despite a recent article in Grain's Chicago Business which reported attendance at Chicago's major museums down, nationally museum attendance still outranks sporting events.

Museums also respond to the a growing need for cross-

Illinois Parks & Recreation * September/October 1995 * 25

generational activities. Entire families can find something of interest in a museum during a single visit. At Fox Valley Park District's Blackberry Farm, visitors to its exhibit on the history of barns in Kane County peruse the displays while younger members of the family sit and play to their hearts content with a miniature barn and animals. At the Streamwood Park District's Hoosier Grove Schoolhouse families experience what a tumof-the-century community celebration was like in the exact same setting. Besides acting as resources and repositories, museums also contribute to a sense of community, linking the past with the present and the future.

More and more, residents are seeking a range of activities that are both active and passive. As their leisure time diminishes, quality leisure choices become a bigger issue. Special facilities such as these give the public an alternative that is be both fun and educational.

The Park District / Museum
—— Partnership —

Creative agreements for services and staffing, ownership and maintenance abound. For instance, many park districts own the property or building, while a historical society or other organization owns the collection. For example, DeKalb Park District owns and maintains the Elwood House Mansion, while the local historical society handles collection and staffing.

Some museums receiving funding from the district but have a separate board, separate policies and procedures, or even not-for-profit status. Still others have cooperative agreements with several organizations or governmental entities such as Palatine's George Clayson House which is owned jointly by the park district and the library district, but is run by the Palatine Historical Society. A joint enterprise between Homewood-Flossmoor and Olympia Fields park districts resulted in the Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center.

These creative arrangements carry over into the areas of staffing where some districts share naturalists or museum professionals. The benefits become more noteworthy when you consider that even some Chicago museums, which rank among the finest in the country, receive support from the Chicago Park District.

Partnerships are not without their problems or headaches. The perceived needs of the different organizations can result in a tug-of-war that can eclipse the requirements of the facility and jeopardize its operations. The upkeep of historical buildings, which are often irreplaceable, task even the most knowledgeable parks departments.

Visitors at the Bloomingdale Park District Museum

Visitors to the Bloomingdale Park District Museum learn what it was like to be wrapped like an Egyptian mummy through a fun interactive activity.

Care and storage of indoor and outdoor collections is a primary function of museums and nature centers, yet these efforts many times go unseen by the visiting public. It is all to easy to underestimate the time, financial and physical requirements that are an integral part of operating and maintaining these facilities. Ethical issues become a concern because these facilities have the legal responsibility to adequately care for the collections. The professional standards, as set by the American Association of Museums, sometimes conflict with the philosophy of board members who may not understand the needs of the facility they are governing.

Following are two suggestions that might prove useful when working toward a productive partnership: 1) Establish a joint mission statement that is agreed upon by all parties involved and review it annually, and 2) hire a professional naturalist or museum staff person—both are highly specialized fields that require unique skills, the ability to juggle many duties and a dedication and willingness to maintain certain standards.

Innovative Programs — Museums and nature centers supply an endless variety of innovative programs and exhibits. The Schaumburg Park District's Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary offers family programs, classes, educational outreach for schools and clubs, and seasonal festivals which celebrate the diversity of the district's 135 acres of preserved natural areas.

Batavia Park District's Depot Museum, housed in a 146-year-old building, highlights the visual arts by displaying ever-changing art exhibitions by local and national artists and traveling exhibits that range from contemporary quilts to oriental kits. Lisle Park District's historical site includes three significant landmarks, including the 1830s Beaubien Tavern and the 1850s Netzley/Yender House. Visitors here experience cooking techniques from the 19th century or learn about the community's varied history.

Museums and nature centers provide a place where you can experience and learn something new and have fun doing it—all of this incorporated into a deep commitment to public service. Districts that have the ability to support these facilities are able to offer their residents unique leisure alternatives. These types of partnerships are something for which we all can feel proud.

Becky Karoliussen is the museum coordinator for the Bloomingdale Park District Museum. For more information write to the author at the Bloomingdale Park District, 172 South Circle Avenue, Bloomingdale, Illinois 60108.

26 * Illinois Parks & Recreation * September/October 1995

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