Inside the Museum

Using the Chicago History Museum’s Research Collections

By: Ellen Keith
Oct 06 2022

In our latest blog post, CHM director of research and access Ellen Keith gives an update on what’s new at the Abakanowicz Research Center.

Here at CHM, we distinguish between museum collections and research collections. In shorthand, museum collections are three-dimensional artifacts. They may be on exhibit or carefully stored. Research collections are two-dimensional and include published material, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, and archives and manuscripts. One of the wonderful things about research collections is that they can be used by the public.

Where does this happen? The Museum’s Research and Access Department serves these collections through the Abakanowicz Research Center (ARC) on the third floor of the Museum. It’s free and open to the public and no special credentials are required to visit, just an interest in Chicago history.

If you’re already a fan of the ARC, you may know that we’ve made some changes since March 2020. We’re currently requiring appointments for weekdays. Researchers make appointments online and dates are available a month at a time. During the height of the pandemic, we suspended Saturday hours, but last fall, we reopened on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. We’re open Saturdays after Labor Day through Memorial Day weekend, and as that’s the day with the longest hours, we have no capacity limits and no appointments required. Come and see us on a Saturday!

Architectural drawing of the Schiller Theater Building/Garrick Theater by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler of Adler & Sullivan for the German Opera Company, Chicago, c. 1920. CHM, ICHi-178195

We have an impressive number of published materials, photographs, architectural drawings, and archives and manuscripts. The best place to start a search for these is ARCHIE, our online catalog. The majority of these resources have to be accessed in-person, but, where possible, we’ve provided links to digital versions.

Two examples from our menu collection. Left: The Thanksgiving dinner menu from Clifton House, November 25, 1858. Right: A Sunday menu from Foster House, February 24, 1856.

One staff project during the pandemic closures of March to July 2020 and November 2020 to March 2021 was searching HathiTrust and the Internet Archive for freely available full-text of material in our holdings. And bonus, sometimes what’s online extends beyond our holdings. For example, our print holdings for the Chicago Department of Health report are 1879–93, but the HathiTrust link in our catalog record has 1867–1940!

A reproduction of an announcement made by a Chicago theater warning against symptoms of influenza published in A report on an epidemic of influenza in the city of Chicago in the fall of 1918 by John Dill Robertson, MD, Commissioner of Health, published by the Department of Health in Chicago, 1918. CHM, ICHi-176190

And (drumroll please), after a much-needed renovation of our collections storage facility, our more than 20,000 linear feet of archives and manuscripts are available again! The collections include records of organizations, like the African American Police League records, and papers of individuals like the Thyra Edwards papers.

Journalist Thyra Edwards wrote for several Black newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. In 1938, Edwards (in vehicle) organized an ambulance tour of the US to raise funds for Spanish democracy during the Spanish Civil War.

We may be biased but this is an amazing collection of archival material, spanning from the French America collection of manuscripts, 1635–1817 to the 21st century with the Center on Halsted records, 1999–2007.

Questions? Contact us at and be prepared for our response to white gloves inquires.

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