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New CEO of Chicago History Museum has a plan to build and diversify attendance

Donald Lassere is returning to his hometown of Chicago with a plan to make the museum more interactive and exciting and to build and diversify a clientele that is now “more than 80%” white in a majority-minority city.

The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.
The Chicago History Museum has a new president and CEO.
Sun-Times file

Chicago’s oldest museum also has one of the lowest profiles, playing second fiddle to the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

But that could change, if Donald Lassere, newly hired president and CEO of the Chicago History Museum, has his way.

Lassere is returning to his hometown of Chicago with a plan to make the History Museum more interactive and exciting and to build and diversify museum attendance that is now “more than 80%” white in a majority-minority city.

Retiring CEO Gary Johnson’s replacement knows how to do that because he’s already done it.

He tripled attendance at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville by shifting the public’s perception of it from a boxing museum to a cultural center. It used Ali’s core principles — spirituality, respect, confidence, dedication, giving and conviction — to inspire people.

“I had an idea that the target market for the Muhammad Ali Center should be women, ages 18-to-40. Basically mothers. When I said that, I got some very strange looks. But when families are planning their outings, it’s the head of the household, i.e., the woman, who is planning where the family is going to go,” Lassere told the Sun-Times.

“Because we decided we were gonna target women, we changed our branding. We changed the type of temporary exhibits we had. We really changed our messaging about the center. And it worked.”

Lassere envisions endless possibilities to engineer a similar transformation at the History Museum.

“I went to Percy L. Julian High School on the South Side of Chicago. And it wasn’t until years later that I learned about Percy L. Julian. That he was this fantastic entrepreneur, African American. He was an extremely brilliant scientist,” Lassere said.

“What if we talked about, from an exhibit perspective, why certain high schools are named after certain people from a historical perspective. That’s an idea that would resonate with the entire community and would be interesting to the entire community. That’s just one idea. It’s pie in the sky. But who knows? It might happen.”

The History Museum could similarly play a role in the ongoing review of whether to retain or replace 41 Chicago statues, including those of four U.S. presidents: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley.

“The History Museum should be the teller of truth. That’s unbiased truth. Once that’s out there, then you can create a constructive discourse about why it may be necessary for some of these statues to be removed from a historical perspective, what they represent,” Lassere said.

“We’re not gonna play politics. That’s not our role. Our role really is to make sure people understand the importance of why these things are even being discussed. What the history is. Why it’s offensive to some people. Creating that environment where people can talk about these significantly divisive issues.”

Lassere also has a few ideas to boost attendance by appealing directly to the melting pot of ethnic groups that “migrated to Chicago.”

“Chicago history is world history because we have so many ethnic groups that migrated here. Let’s talk about the reasons for that. Why do you have a large Latinx community? Why do you have a large African American community? Why do you have a large Polish community, Greek community? Talk about those migratory patterns. Why did that happen? That would be so interesting to so many people,” he said.

Lassere pointed to the global shoes exhibit he put together in Louisville.

“Kids could come in and try on different shoes from different cultures, different communities, different countries. That was exciting to them. It taught them about other cultures. And the touching and the feeling of these artifacts is very important. You can’t do that through a video screen,” he said.

With a 15-year-old daughter, Lassere said he’s well aware the History Museum needs to become more exciting to teenagers addicted to cellphones, video games and social media.

He plans to do that, in part, through the types of music made famous in Chicago: jazz, blues and house music.

“Believe it or not, I listened to house music when I was a teenager. Teenagers are still listening to it. Did they know that it originated in Chicago? No. We may be able to have an exhibit around that as well as other genres of music,” he said.

He suggested the exhibit could be interactive, allowing teens to perhaps leave with their own recording of house music.

“It’s creative things like that that can really be attractive to multi-generations of Chicagoans,” Lassere said.