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EXCHANGE: Illinois State Museum recovering after budget woes

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The Illinois State Museum has been re-accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, despite being put on probation by the organization during the state’s budget impasse.

Robert Sill, interim director of the Illinois State Museum, said reopening the museum and working toward accreditation has been a “rebuilding process.”

“Moving forward, I think we’re adapting and adopting and embracing change,” he said.

The Illinois State Museum has been accredited since 1972, but it was put probation in 2015 after Gov. Bruce Rauner decided to close the facility for nine months during the state’s budget impasse.

If a museum is closed for more than 110 days, a museum’s accreditation is put on suspension or probation, Sill said.

The accreditation process, which happens at least every 10 years, includes site visits, and a “self-study” by the museum consisting of a questionnaire about how the museum cares for its collection, its staffing levels and needs for each area.

As a result of the probationary period, the museum also had to develop a five-year strategic plan, which was scrutinized by the American Alliance of Museums’ commission.

“Ultimately, we prevailed,” Sill said. “It means a lot to the institution.”

Included in the five-year plan is increasing the museum’s fundraising, broadening its digital reach and improving accessibility to its collection.

“That document is really sort of a road map to our future,” he said.

Sill said being accredited helps the museum with things like getting national grants.

When the museum emerged from its nine-month shutdown in July 2016, the facility instituted a new $5 admission charge for adults. (Children age 18 and younger, senior citizens and military veterans are still admitted free.) Also after reopening, the museum experienced a sharp decline in visitors. Attendance is rebounding, however. In 2018, the museum counted 47,156 visitors, which is more than the approximately 40,000 people it attracted in 2017, Sill said.

Sill attributes the growth to some of the new programming, such as Music at the Museum and Museum After Hours.

Staffing levels also have increased. When the museum reopened in summer 2016, its headcount was 28. It is now 39. Before the shutdown it had 62 employees, officials said. Sill says the employee number is going to grow.

“We’re in the process of rehiring some critical positions and some new kinds of positions,” Sill said.

The biggest new hire will be a permanent director, for which they are now interviewing. Sill, the interim director, said he wants to go back to his role as the museum’s art and history director.

“That’s my passion,” he said.

When the museum re-opened two years ago with its 28-member staff, Sill said the programming and exhibition schedule the museum had was still ambitious.

“When the commission saw what we were doing with so few people, I think they were impressed,” Sill said.

“We are all committed to continuing and strengthening the Illinois State Museum’s standing as a world-class museum approaching 150 years of telling the story of Illinois,” Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement.

Of the nation’s estimated 33,000 museums, about 1,070 are currently accredited.

“Accredited museums are a community of institutions that have chosen to hold themselves publicly accountable to excellence,” said Laura L. Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums. “Accreditation is clearly a significant achievement, of which both the institutions and the communities they serve can be extremely proud.”

According to the American Alliance of Museum’s website, 33 out of the 178 museums in Illinois are accredited by AAM, including the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
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