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Will The Illinois State Museum Go The Way Of The Mastodon?

Lisa Ryan

Illinois lawmakers have a couple of weeks left to reach a resolution on the state budget. If they don't get it done by the end of June, the comptroller has warned that she'll no longer have authority to pay the state's bills.

Already certain state employees, programs and facilities are on heightened alert. At the start of the month, Governor Bruce Rauner issued notice he was immediately taking steps to cut costs in preparation: film tax credits Illinois offers as an incentive won't be offered to any new TV shows or movies; with temperatures hitting above 90 degrees, the state is suspending support of a program that helps low-income residents pay for air-conditioning; park districts won't get any grants to buy, and to preserve, new land.

Rauner also plans to suspend operations of the Illinois State Museum, but there's a grassroots movement to keep it open.

Last year, nearly 200,000 people visited the Illinois State Museum in Springfield: Adults visiting art exhibits, researchers, classrooms on field-trips, or kids like one who was playing with a friend at the museum the other day and yelled excitedly, "we're here for Summer Camp! It's awesome! You should come next year!"

Children next year may not get that chance.

Gov. Rauner's calling for the museum and its four companion sites, including the Dickson Mounds American Indian archeological site, to close.

Rauner had signaled that could happen as early as next month, though the state Dept. of Natural Resources, which runs the museum, says no exact date has been set.

Shutting down a museum with millions of artifacts isn't as simple as locking the doors, and covering up the massive mastodon skeleton that's on display. The Illinois State Museum owns millions of artifacts -- from bones and fossils to quilts and dolls.

"It's a cultural gem," says chairman of the state museum board Guerry Suggs (Suggs is a generous donor to WUIS and public radio).

Suggs says the museum has to follow the federal Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act. "It's a law that allows us to hold remains from Native American peoples, funerary objects which were buried with them," he said. "We have agreements with a number of tribes regarding that. Under those agreements they have access to those objects any time they want, so there could be some issues there. If we weren't able to allow them accessibility, they could sue us for that."

It's one of various issues associated with closing a museum that holds some 11 million items; items it appears the state will hold onto. The Rauner administration, in its initial press release announcing the governor's plans said, "The state will continue to maintain and secure the museums to protect the artifacts and exhibits." Suggs points out that means that even if visitors can no longer drop by, taxpayers will be on the hook for expenses like temperature and humidity control, and some personnel costs.

There's also the matter of grants the state has committed to. It's not just a museum -- there's an entire research branch with a pollen database, entomology unit, and more.

Credit Lisa Ryan

Rauner was recently asked at a press conference on property taxes and the budget impasse by Springfield State Journal Register reporter Bernie Schoenburg if closing the museum, even temporarily, is worth the relatively meager $5 or $6 million in savings.

"Well, Berns, you're getting into a level of detail that I don't think it's right to go into right at this particular conference," Rauner replied. "We can talk with you further with our staff about it. The reality is nobody likes cuts. I don't like to make cuts." But these are cuts that have been brought about by Speaker Madigan, President Cullerton and the politicians in the legislature that they control."

DNR spokesman, Chris Young, did have some of those details. He said in an email that the museum has three active research grants from the National Science Foundation, and there's an education grant. Young says the administration is working on a strategy to complete that work. He also says the museum will return all art objects on display that are owned by other entities. And he says it will call back objects it has lent. Young wrote that "closure will come after the museum's professional staff has adequate time to ensure that collections are properly accounted for and stored."

Credit Lisa Ryan

  Which is to say, layoff notices to the museum's' approximately 70 employees haven't gone out.

Advocates of the museum hope they never do.

Samantha Reif -- who teaches geology at Lincoln Land Community College and volunteers at the museum -- is trying to pressure the governor to reverse course.

Reif started on online petition at MoveOn.org asking Gov. Rauner to "save the state museum." Not yet a week in, it's got about four-thousand signatures. Reif says her goal was to raise awareness of the museum's plight.

"I was at the museum yesterday and there was a few tourists who came through and made comments about wanting to come before the doors were closed, but I think most of them were blissfully unaware," she said. "And I think that's a shame. Because we have lots of people that come through the museum every day and if they show up on July 1 and the doors are locked and no one knew anything about it, I think that's a disservice to the state."

Like Reif, Rep. Tim Butler, a Republican who represents Springfield, says he doesn't want to see the museum close, but he says Rauner has to prepare to deal with an out-of-balance budget, or no budget at all.

"The governor is taking the steps that he needs to take to manage that budget and he's making the decisions: is it more important to keep the state museum open? Or fund Medicaid? I mean those are the kind of decisions you have to make when you get a budget that's $4 billion out of balance."

The Governor and Democratic legislators have until the end of the month to resolve their impasse. It's unclear whether meeting that deadline will lift Rauner's plans to close the museum or not -- the initial budget in February proposed cutting the Illinois State Museum's funding by about a million dollars, but said "the museums will remain open and accessible and continue to be admission-free."

Either way it's doubtful the museum will close by July 1. Illinois law requires that before any state facility close, a months-long procedure must be followed. Rauner's administration filed initial paperwork June 3. It's a process that's held up facility closures in the past. Still, advocates says even a temporary closure could lead to a brain-drain of staff and expert researchers, turn off donors, or cause the museum to lose its accreditation.

"It looks at the people and the land of Illinois, it tells you about what the history is," board chairman Suggs says of Illinois State Museum. "And I think we can learn a lot from history as we look forward."

The State Museum explores what life was like in Illinois millions of years ago -- when it was covered in glaciers, when it was a tropical sea, when live mastodons roamed. The following weeks may determine if, like so many of the creatures and culture on exhibit, the museum itself will go extinct.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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