Progress — and a trashing — for Illinois State Museum

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Illinois State Museum employee Phil Kennedy on June 2 prepares to hang a reverse painting on glass portrait of Prudence Capps Beidler from 1867 in the museum in Springfield, Ill. The museum could reopen soon, after being closed since October due to the state budget impasse. The state’s Department of Natural Resources said the museum could reopen July 2, following approval of an admission charge to the main museum campus. (David Spencer/The State Journal-Register via AP)

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A couple of things — one good, one bad — will go on exhibit if two or more branches of the Illinois State Museum reopen as expected on July 2.

The good thing is that the museum system will begin charging a modest $5 admission fee, which will reduce the system’s cost to taxpayers and create an incentive for its managers to do all they can to lure paying customers — a smart infusion of a market incentive. Children under 18, veterans and senior citizens will continue to enter for free.

The bad thing is that the widely respected institution will reopen after a trashing that was utterly avoidable. The admission fee easily could have been imposed without shutting all five of the museum’s sites for the last 8½ months and leaving three sites in limbo even today. The 138-year-old museum system has suffered a significant loss of talented professional staff, and its accreditation — a recognition that it ranks among the best state museums — is in jeopardy.

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Imposing a modest admission fee makes sense. The state’s budget challenges are real, and finding new revenue streams is part of the answer. Part of that money will come from visitors from out of state.

But letting the quality of the museum slip in the months it took to do something as simple as putting a ticket taker at the front door was so foolish.

As part of the state’s budget stalemate, the museum system was closed Oct. 1. The system cost about $6 million a year to run, and as Gov. Bruce Rauner and Legislature failed to agree on a balanced budget, the fiscal axes chopped everywhere. But though the facilities were closed, a court ruling dictated that union employees continue to be paid, reducing any savings.

Meanwhile, the intangible costs were high. Most of the museum system’s scientists have departed for good, including the director. Program planning has ground to a halt. The American Alliance of Museums’ Accreditation Commission put the museum on probation. The state museum is not the same institution today that it was when it closed its doors.

The museum’s central facility in Springfield was internationally recognized as a repository of historical, scientific and cultural resources. It also had a reputation for top-quality science.

On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules approved the plan for the admission fee, the last step in the process of reopening the Springfield and Dickson Mound museums. The fate of the system’s art galleries in the James R. Thompson Center, Lockport and Southern Illinois has not been settled.

Illinois may crawl out of its self-inflicted budget crisis yet. The governor and Legislature may finally find a way to work together. But our state continues to pay a terrible and lasting price in the meantime.

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