For the past 24 years I have regularly done tours and lectures on Chicago architecture, history, geography, and lots of other subjects (lots of other locales too). I recall doing a presentation on Chicago architecture for a group located in a basement room of a 1920s park building in Lincoln Park in the early 1990s. The second time I did a talk for the group, they were planning to move out of the basement to larger quarters, which they did.
What I didn’t realize at the time (I rarely do) was that the tiny well-meaning group striving to edify the children of Lincoln Park was the leading edge of a new trend, a brilliant business model that has exploded into a significant industry in the last two decades. The children’s museum.
By the late 1990s, I was visiting children’s museums around the Midwest as part of my work for Michelin’s green guides, and as they appeared in several Chicago suburbs it became clear that this was a phenomenon like brewpubs and iPods – everyone wanted one. Heck, my kids love them – even had a birthday party at one this past summer, so I have seen how well this (not-for-profit) business works.
The little Lincoln Park basement museum moved into Navy Pier, which gets 9 million visitors a year, and soon the Chicago Children’s Museum was a serious force. And now it is out of space.
In 2004 Millenium Park became the “it” space in Chicago, displacing the Pier, and it wasn’t long before Millenium Park turned out to be the camel’s nose and the Chicago Children’s Museum became the camel. This is why Alderman Reilly is against the proposal – it is another building in Grant Park, which is not allowed to have buildings. Except the Art Institute, and “temporary” buildings like the 29-year old Petrillo Bandshell, and “ancillary structures” like the pavilions around Buckingham Fountain, and places like the Harris Theater that are tucked under the grass and the Gehry bandshell which is legally “sculpture”. Yes, there is a problem of a truckload of exceptions that prove the rule. All of these were the camel’s nose and here comes the double-humped children’s museum.
The Mayor is in favor of it, and the spin is: He is in favor of children. That’s a pretty safe harbor, but it is disingenuous. If the cause is good and sweet and wholesome enough, they are allowed to have a building in the park? It wouldn’t take us long to come up with a list of socially endearing museums that could fill the remaining 300 acres of Grant Park.
The historical reality is that the Field Museum was kicked out of its preferred Grant Park location despite the advocacy of Daniel Burnham, the city, the newspapers and the business leaders except for Montgomery Ward. And Ward is the one who let the Art Institute in. A couple weeks ago the Tribune weighed in against the museum even before Reilly’s announcement. Meanwhile the Mayor’s side is cobbling together innuendo to spin it into a racial issue. It is really a lakefront issue. It is also a success issue – this children’s museum thing is hot, hip and happening and they want a piece of the hot, hip and happening park. The questions are: Who’s next, How much clout do they have and When do we run out of space?