Small Museum Spotlight

Small Museum Spotlight: The McCormick Bridgehouse Museum in Chicago, IL

Sometimes I forget how great it is to be a tourist in my own town.

I have lived in Chicago for eight years. Like many locals in a big city, I find that I don’t venture out to many cultural institutions unless I’m acting as a tour guide for visitors.

When friends and family visit, they usually want to view the exhibits at the larger, more famous, museums including The Field Museum, The Museum of Science and Industry, and The Art Institute.

As a consequence, I have been missing out on a variety of smaller places with great things to see and learn.

I was recently downtown for the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, and I made the time to stop in at the McCormick Bridgehouse Museum & Chicago River Museum at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Sarah Vowell wrote one of my favorite essays about this intersection.

The Bridgehouse Museum occupies the southwest corner of the DuSable bridge across the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue. It is administered by a nonprofit–the Friends of the Chicago River–which is concerned with the river’s use and ecology. The museum is open from May to October each year.

Admission was $4, which was certainly a fair price for the experience. The galleries included the interpretation of topics including the architecture of Chicago’s bridges, the ecological makeup of the Chicago river area before and after settlement, the changes humans have made to the river (including reversing its flow!), and the ways that industrial and human waste have created tremendous problems for the Chicago populace during the past 175 years.

The exhibit panels were well organized by topic, well placed, graphically appealing, and physically well maintained. As an Archivist, I was very pleased to see the variety of historic photographs, maps, design drawings, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera that were digitally reproduced and interpreted in the panels. The photographs of Chicagoans interacting with the river over time were especially appealing. The gallery opens into a room that provides a clear view of the machinery used to lift the bridge.

The major drawback to the museum is inherent in its physical structure. It is located in a tall, narrow tower, so it is nearly impossible to provide elevators or ramps to enable access to those with limited mobility. I suspect that the museum accommodates some visitors with a street level entrance (labeled for emergencies only) to the 4th floor gallery, but I did not see a mention of this practice in the museum or on its website. The flow of the exhibits starts at the Riverwalk and winds up the stairs to the fifth floor at the top. Once visitors view all of the galleries, they must share a relatively narrow staircase with those ascending. On a day of heavy foot traffic, this could be a problem. On the gorgeous day I visited, attendance was low.

A final note about this museum. Visitors can get a free Chicago River t-shirt by completing a survey at the exit. I thought that this was a nice way to learn visitor opinions and provide them with a nice memento.

In all, this visit has inspired me to seek out more small museums and enjoy the unique experiences that they each have to offer. I hope that you’ll do the same.

Here’s a gallery from my visit:

Chicago's BridgesMuseum with skylineEntrance to the Museum from Michigan AvenueView of the Museum from the RiverError!Entering the actual bridge machinery room.
MachinerySculpture explanationPrimary sourcesWater TaxiStreet levelPolitical Cartoon
A big question answeredMap of the facilityStairsSouthern ViewView from the topMuseum entrance

Bridgehouse Museum, a set on Flickr.

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