Top 10 Museum Exhibits in Chicago of 2019

2019 was a jam-packed year for museums in the windy city! Since I couldn’t see every fabulous exhibit, I reached out to a bunch of Chicago museum professionals and asked them to tell me about their favorite exhibits of 2019.

The methodology for creating this list of top exhibits was hardly scientific, but it reflects the great enthusiasm that Chicago museum professionals have for their peers’ work. The list is based on a short survey that gave respondents the option to provide a quote about their favorite exhibit or to anonymously provide information about it. I posted the survey to Facebook groups for Chicago museum professionals and the responses came in!

Here are 2019 exhibits that Chicago museum community members told me they loved…

1) Amplified: Chicago Blues at the Chicago History Museum

Amplified interpreted the collection of Raeburn Flerlage, a radio host and music producer who took tens of thousands of photographs of the 1960’s blues scene in Chicago. According to Lance Tawzer, Exhibits Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the exhibit was noteworthy because it “took audience engagement to a new level took unconventional approaches to interpretation.” Visitors walked into immersive environments mimicking Chicago of the 1960s, including a record shop, recording studio, and nightclub. They also had the opportunity to try their hand at the music business. As Dave Newbart at the Chicago Reader related, “you can pick up one of two guitars (these are real, not the fake Guitar Hero variety) perched opposite video screens that literally show you how to strum along to a typical series of blues chords. Within no time, you can feel like you, too, could become a master if you keep at it. You might also discover hidden vocal talent in a re-created blues club. Microphones are set up on a large stage with a karaoke video monitor.”

2) Nevermore Park

A fully immersive, experiential space that was both for-profit and substantive, Nevermore Park broke the established paradigm of a pop-up museum and begged the question, “what could museums be?” As Arkey K. Adams, Founder of Chicago Culture Lab stated, “some of the most critical [and] timely work is being done outside of traditional museum institutions. Nevermore is one such work.”

3) About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art at Wrightwood 659

About Face explored the changing nature of the LGBTQ+ community since Stonewall. The curator Jonathan David Katz stated that “in the works on view in About Face, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and race—far from being clear categories—hybridize and overlap to the point that ‘queer’ becomes a verb, not a noun.”

Catherine White, Assistant Manager of Education and Programming at International Museum of Surgical Science, loved the exhibit because it “was an incredible combination of different mediums and themes surrounding LGBTQ history around the world. Walking through the exhibit felt like walking through a dream with different video audios blending together, bright colors, and poignant, sometimes difficult reminders of death and discrimination.”

4) Zev and Shifra Karkomi Holocaust Exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum

The newly renovated Karkomi exhibit highlights the often-ignored topic of Jewish armed and physical resistance during the Holocaust. Since my colleagues at Luci Creative worked on the exhibit, I was particularly exited to see the positive response to the updates. In the new exhibit, “a semi-immersive environment…helps visitors connect to the story.” For example, “the ghetto uprising space, comprised of brick walls and archways, evokes an underground bunker occupied by resistance fighters.”

5) SUE at the Field Museum

SUE the T. Rex is the most complete T.Rex fossil that has ever been found. They’re also a Chicago icon with a hilarious twitter personality. The fossil has been at the Field Museum since 1997, but SUE recently got a new exhibit to call home, which places the fossil in its ecological, historical, and paleontological context. According to Meredith Whitfield, an exhibit developer at the Field Museum who worked on the new exhibit, it demonstrates that “the point of this big T. rex is that the evidence is all there in the bones. Scientists have learned incredible things by looking closely at this object.”

6) Tara Donovan: Fieldwork at the Smart Museum

According to the Smart Museum, “Fieldwork celebrates American artist Tara Donovan’s distinctive practice that transforms mundane materials like plastic straws, index cards, rubber bands, Slinkys, and Mylar into elaborate, mind-bending objects evocative of the natural world.” Filippa Christofalou, Founder and Director of the Drama Science Lab, thought the exhibit was one of 2019’s best because, “It was a great opportunity to get familiar with the artist’s work and understand the ways she sees objects and the ways she works with the materials.”

7) Eternal Light: The Sacred Stained-glass windows of Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Driehaus Museum

A must see exhibit according to Crain’s and Curbed, Eternal Light brought Tiffany pieces to Chicago from premier institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. It used these pieces to explore the “design and production of Tiffany’s ecclesiastical window commissions…in the context of both the art and social history of the period.” As Richard Townsend the Executive Director of the Driehaus Museum stated in an interview with WTTW, the exhibit was “looking at old material in a new light, looking at these beautiful objects but looking at them as signs and evidence of manifestations of social and economic change.”

8) Setting the Stage at the Design Museum of Chicago

All of us Chicagoans are proud that our city is a national center for both design and art. Setting the Stage at the Design Museum of Chicago, a beloved nomadic pop-up museum, used objects from Chicago’s many celebrated theaters to explore the magic of set, costume, and lighting design, from reading a script to the final product. Of particular note, every month a different theater produced a mini exhibit about their unique approach to design. Nancy Bishop from Third Coast Review affectionately said about the exhibit, “Next time you go to the theater, I suggest you go beyond your usual reading of the program. Check out the cast and director, then study the list of production staff. You’ll see people with jobs titled carpenter, painter, electrician, projection designer, cutter, stitcher, wigmaker and dresser. Those are some of the backstage workers who create the onstage magic. After visiting this exhibit, you’ll know that it wouldn’t be theater without them.”

9) Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again at the Art Institute of Chicago

Jojo Galvan, a Research Assistant at UIC, perfectly summed up the traveling Andy Warhol exhibit that stopped at the Art Institute, stating, “It’s a truly breathtaking exhibit that captures the lightning in a bottle that was Andy Warhol.”

10) Tête à Tête: Embodying Dialogues at the Zhou B Art Center

Curated by Kat Buckley, an independent curator of interdisciplinary art, Tête à Tête explored “how viewers’ physical interactions with works inform their interpretations.” As Buckley related, “a visitor to Tête à Tête asked me why I didn’t ‘pair works together.’ I created a show with flexible, interwoven narratives. In other words, I want you to make your own pairs. I want an open room where you can see the dialogues between works and think about how they might be related. I want a show that is open-ended, ripe for individualized interpretation. And I think we achieved it.”

Bonus! Norman Rockwell: Season of Care at the International Museum of Surgical Science

Small but mighty, Norman Rockwell: Season of Care got a few enthusiastic shout outs from museum professionals. The exhibit brought Rockwell’s 1940’s images of home medical care into the spotlight and paired them with historic medical artifacts depicted in the paintings.

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