Geneva History Museum preparing to create a fresh identity

Published: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 11:38 p.m. CDT
(Sandy Bressner –
Gayle Meers, museum technician at the Geneva History Center, prepares the front entry area for painting Thursday morning. The Geneva History Center will change its name to the Geneva History Museum and will celebrate 10 years at the Third Street location with a gala in May.

GENEVA – Sometimes when visitors stop in at the Geneva History Center, they think it’s a visitor center, the chamber of commerce, a retail store – or they’re just looking for a restroom.

“You can see the confusion when they walk in our door,” history center director Terry Emma said at a city council meeting this week. “They walk in, and at the first set of doors there’s posters of community events. Now they’re even more confused – maybe this is a visitor center.”

As the interaction continues, visitors would be greeted by administrative assistant Vanessa Quillinan, Emma said, so then they think maybe they need to make an appointment. 

“Or should they go into the gift shop and buy something?” Emma said. “People had this look of ‘Where am I?’ So we started saying ‘Welcome to our museum.’ And then it’s,  ‘Oh, thank you, now I know where I am.’ We looked up the definition of ‘museum’ and read it as a group. Yes we do that.”

So after beginning as the Geneva Historical Society, morphing into the Geneva History Center when it moved to Third Street 10 years ago from Wheeler Park, a third, more accurate identity will emerge: Geneva History Museum.

Emma said the organization is planning a gala event May 16 and 17 to mark the anniversary on Third Street and to unveil its updated presence.

“The Geneva History Center does not mean a lot to the outside,” Emma said. “After evaluating ourselves using a museum assessment program, we need to be like everyone else. We will be the Geneva History Museum. Come see our new name, our new logo, our new look.”

Toward preparing for that anniversary, Emma said she and other staff and volunteers have been painting while the center is closed to the public through next week.

“The new colors are teal and khaki,” Emma said. “Teal represents history, the patina on bronze or copper – it suits us well. It will liven us up on Third Street.”

Heidi Howlett, the center’s recently hired educator, said updating the gallery is the most exciting thing for her.

“The gallery ... has been the same for 10 years,” Howlett said. “We can have some new things people can learn about Geneva – and change it up every so often instead of every 10 years – like a real museum.”

• • •

The history center museum does not get public funds, but instead relies on donations, grants and gifts to maintain its archives, photos and exhibits – as well as its historic 1880s building.

Emma said the center received a Kane County Riverboat grant of $18,750 in 2011 to remove paint from an outside wall, tuck point the brick and put on a clear sealant. More recently, the center received a $14,000 Riverboat grant to fix the roof, as the all original clay tiles were crumbling and cracking. Kane County administers grants from its share of funds received from the riverboats in Elgin and Aurora.

“They were being patched with tar, and we were getting wasps inside,” Emma said. “We own this building from the late 1800s, and we are in care of many items in our collection. We need to keep it secure or moisture will get in and cause other issues.”

The Fabyan Foundation helped with a $5,000 grant for five iPads for media stations.

“People will be able to interact with history and listen to audio and video recordings,” Emma said. “We can even show some YouTube videos, to be more interactive.”

In October 2012, the Robinson Foundation, through the efforts of the Jaeger family after the death of board member Dick Jaeger, secured a $30,000 matching grant to redo the Geneva exhibit.

Not only were they able to match the grant, Emma said his widow, Norma Jaeger, gave them an additional $5,000. The history center used some of the money to work with Chicago Scenic Studios Inc., to help guide the redesign, she said. 

A new feature still being worked on is a mini-Fargo Theater in a gallery with a marquee, Emma said. The theater marquee on State Street used to be the Fargo Theater, as it was known as the Fargo Building. 

“We will be mimicking that same kind of marquee with theater seats,” Emma said. “It will be in our exhibit in the back of the museum. We’re still working on details.”

Emma said the space will be ideal for historic Geneva clips. 

Perhaps the most telling part of how the history center faced how it must change came from a self-assessment program through the American Alliance of Museums. Emma said the organization was accepted into an eight-week self-study program requiring three hours per week.

“They made us look at our organization in so many ways. We visited [the center]  as though we knew nothing about ourselves,” Emma said. 

And that is how they realized their name was a problem.

“Starting from the outside, we had three potential failure points,” Emma said. “’What the heck is a Geneva History Center?’”

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