How Chicago put museum chicanery on display: author

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Is Chicago a city that would pull a fast one when it comes to museums? Author and Chicago native James Swanson says yes.

Speaking Tuesday evening at a Society of Midland Authors program at the Harold Washington Library Center, Swanson talked about going as a child to the Civil War museum that used to be in the Chicago Public Library when it was situated in the building that now is the Chicago Cultural Center.

James Swanson

“How many of you remember that great Civil War museum that was on the second floor?” asked Swanson, author of the best-sellers Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer and Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse (both HarperCollins), and the young adult book Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Scholastic). “I do miss that museum.”

Swanson said the library was built on that piece of land in 1897 in a deal that called for including  a Civil War museum.

“That’s what that hall was supposed to be,” said Swanson, whose latest books (fall 2013) are End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (William Morrow) and the young adult book The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Scholastic). “Remember the cannon, the wall cases, the floor cases? Well, when the city decided to make a cultural center, and make money by renting out that hall for weddings and events … they decided to get rid of that Civil War museum. All those relics are now stored here [at the Harold Washington Library]  in Special Collections.”

Swanson said city lawyers came up with this justification for closing the museum in the building’s north end: “Well, because the names of the Civil War battles are carved along the walls near the ceiling … in gold paint, those names are there in perpetuity, so you can clear this room of the cannon, the relics and everything else and you will comply with the [museum] deal.”

Some fans of the museum were so outraged about the museum they briefly considered trying to get the federal government to seize the land, he said.

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