Geneva History Museum reopens, welcomes record number visitors

After being closed since March 13, 2020 because of the pandemic, the Geneva History Museum, 113 S. Third St., Geneva, reopened last week and recorded a record 161 visitors.

“It was fabulous,” Executive Director Terry Emma said. “We’ve had the highest rate of visitors comparing it back to 2016. … Last week compared to 2019, we had 90 people and in 2018, only 60 that week.”

The staff used the pandemic closure to make updates to the 3,000-square-foot Main Gallery, “Geneva’s Story,” adding community service and entertainment with a grant from the Fabyan Foundation.

More artifacts and archival images are on display, and videos and interviews are available on a fifth iPad.

After seven years of fundraising, they also built a Story Booth where visitors can listen to or record their Geneva stories.

Volunteer Craig Elliott redesigned the museum’s Gift Shop with slat wall systems and custom shelving.

‘Dear Geneva, With Love’

This summer, the museum is partnering with Geneva artist Catherine Tilly for her public art project, “Dear Geneva, With Love.”

A large chalkboard wall was installed on South Third Street, just north of the Geneva History Museum. Some 5,000 postcards are being scattered throughout Geneva – all with a simple prompt – to write a note or draw a picture to tell the world what the recipient loves about the community.

This project is a response to the time we’ve spent socially distanced and apart. It’s designed to be an unfolding story of community, a snapshot of history, and a love letter to place – part public art, part marketing and part history.

The temporary wall installation, made possible by Hogan Construction, will remain on display through Festival of the Vine in September.

The project was made possible with support from the Geneva History Museum, Hogan Construction, The Geneva Cultural Arts Commission and Geneva Foundation for the Arts. The Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva provided the use of the historic church’s lawn.

8,000 donated photographs

Staff also worked on a variety of museum artifacts and projects, such as archiving 8,000 donated photographs, Emma said.

“The Geneva Republican donated four boxes of photos from the ’80s and the (Kane County) Chronicle donated photos from the ’80s,” Emma said. “It was such a large donation to come in at once.”

Because she grew up in Geneva, Emma said she could identify most of the people in the photos from the 1970s and 1980s.

“They are all in a database now. I put people, dates and names – it’s all there – searchable, findable, usable database,” Emma said. “Some were negatives. Some are typeset, and some are cropped.”

Among the photos that hit hard were those covering the funeral procession for late Geneva Mayor William Ottilie, she said.

Ottilie died in a car crash in Wisconsin in 1996 at age 46.

They also archived the work of a cartoonist for the Geneva Republican, Barry Stark, who created two women named Ge’n’Eva – get it? Geneva – who would make fun of things going on in the news and locally, Emma said.

“Gen is dark-haired like me, and Eva looks like it could be Heidi (Howlett), our museum educator,” Emma said.

She contacted Stark to get his permission to use Ge’n’Eva for marketing and for some of the museum tours.

“I embroidered the cartoon on the back of two bowling shirts – one for me and one for Heidi – to wear during tours,” Emma said.

Organized collections

Staff also took advantage of being closed to move 50,000 objects from collections in the basement to the first floor so new mobile storage shelves could be installed, Emma said.

The museum’s five staff members and four volunteers agreed to mask up, have temperatures taken and work on a one-to-one ratio for three weeks to empty the two downstairs rooms, she said.

“They put everything in the main gallery. We used every square inch of space on the first floor,” Emma said. “We were done right after July 4, and we sat here and waited for shelving to arrive.”

The contractor needed the rooms empty to measure for the shelving, which did not arrive until November, and then staff took months to reorganize everything.

The work was made possible by $300,000 in grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services – which gave the largest donation of $162,000 – and from the Dunham Fund and the Kane County Riverboat Fund, Emma said.

The new shelving system achieved the goals set in the grant proposals, which included increasing accessibility, as well as improving the care, storage and environmental conditions for the former cramped collections, and accommodating future growth.

The museum also benefited from the PPP funds and Covid relief funds from Kane County and the state, she said.

In May, Emma said they promoted May Membership Month and received $27,000 – the most ever received in the past six years.

“It allowed us just to continue to operate without being open,” Emma said.

The museum is open through the rest of 2021 with no daily fee, and it’s possible they may decide to end paid admission.

“We have not decided about paid admission,” Emma said. “If it gets more people in here to appreciate history – well, we always have a donation box by the front door. A gentleman gave us $100 after I gave him a tour.”


Brenda Schory

Brenda Schory

Brenda Schory covers Geneva, crime and courts, and features for the Kane County Chronicle