Chicago’s Small Museums Preserve the Passion

Journals and newspaper collections from the Lansing Historical Society. (Photo by Nathan Ottens-Sanders)

Audio Slideshow: Visit some of Chicago’s small museums and hear from some of the owners and proprietors.

By Jim Crago and Nathan Ottens-Sanders

Giuseppe Gaglione of Stampland on Chicago Avenue has a passion for collecting rare rubber stamps – some used from the early 20th century. He also schedules as much time as possible for making rubber stamps to put on display for all to see.

“We don’t receive any monetary donations,” Gaglione said. “But donations of rubber stamps and stamp pads are always welcome.”

When visiting Stampland, it was obvious that Gaglione took his craft very seriously. When asked about his idea for Stampland, he lit up like a child finding presents under a Christmas tree.

How does Gaglione sustain without the aid of thousands of advertising dollars?

“We go to conventions, mostly on the east coast, and we promote via our website. My wife Darlene also teaches classes for scrapbooking.”

Giuseppe Gaglione of Stampland demonstrates his early 20th century stamp maker. (Photo by Jim Crago)

The John G. Shedd Museum and Field Museum, to name a few, have been mainstays throughout the years and have always sustained through even the toughest economic times. They display life from 20,000 leagues under the sea and pay homage to The Ancient America’s and Chocolate to thousands of patrons each year.

Father Krasic, Director of the Croatian Ethnic Institute and Museum, says that educational services, by way of his exhibit, help spread the legacy of Croatians in Chicago -past and present.

“We want to educate even those who do not speak Croatian on the journey of Croatians to America,” Father Krasic said. “There are many famous Croatians that have come through Chicago like Toni Kukoc of the Bulls and there’s something to say about that.”

Most of the smaller museums rely on loyal volunteer workers and generous monetary donations to sustain their collections. Money from big businesses is almost non-existent.

“We receive very few corporate donations,” said Karin Abercrombie of the Swedish American Museum. “We rely a lot on smaller grants and memberships.”

Abercrombie also says that they rely on artifact donations for display that may have been discovered from an abandoned house or even museum.

There have, however, been situations when big brother has helped little brother in times of need. Nicholle Dumbrowski of the DANK Haus German-American Cultural Center says that the Field Museum helped teach a workshop on how to preserve their collections; they have also helped in other situations.

“The Chinese Museum burned down a few years ago,” Dumbrowski said. “The Field Museum jumped in and helped preserve what was left.”

But what about museums that do not have the privilege of national funding or unlimited dollar amounts for advertising? Most of the “smaller” museums rely on public donations from visitors.

“There is no charge to visit the museum,” said Tony DeLaurentis of the Lansing Historical Society. “We do have a donation box for anyone who cares to make a donation.”

While the larger museums witness hundreds, if not thousands of visitors per day, DeLaurentis says that they receive five to 10 visitors per day when they are open.

“We do several fundraisers, some annually and some ‘special projects,’” said DeLaurentis. “Our annual Bakeless Sale usually nets us approximately $1,000.”

Collette Renfro of The Blackberry Harvest Dollhouse Museum says that she started her museum when she was a child.

“I have had a dollhouse since I was eight years old,” Renfro said. “One thing led to another – another house, another house, another house.”

Renfro says that her museum is also a Shoppe and that it is her personal business. While she receives donations on occasion for help, she says that there has been a slight decline in attendance.

“There’s definitely a decline, mostly because of the internet. Mothers are able to outbid someone online [for a dollhouse] instead of coming in.”

Renfro, like many of the other curators, started their museums based on “passion” and have carried it on for years.

“One day my landlady came to the house and mentioned, ‘Oh, this is like a museum,’” Renfro said. “And I replied, ‘One day I’d like to open a museum; I might be just a housewife but I’m going to do it!’”

Interactive Map: Locations of some of Chicago’s small museums.

Swedish American Museum

ADDRESS – 5211 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60640


MAIN MESSAGE – Spread the Swedish immigration message from 1870 to 1920.

DANK Haus German-American Cultural Center and Museum

ADDRESS – 4740 N. Western Ave. Chicago, IL 60625


MAIN MESSAGE – Promote German culture in the city.


ADDRESS – 2708 W. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60622


MAIN MESSAGE – Nostalgia for all things stamps.

Lansing Historical Museum

ADDRESS – 2750 Indiana Ave. Lansing, IL 60438


MAIN MESSAGE – Collections of historical items and stories of the towns past.

Croatian Ethnic Institute and Museum

ADDRESS – 4851 S. Drexel Blvd. Chicago, IL 60615


MAIN MESSAGE – To educate those interested in Croatian history and language.

Blackberry Harvest Dollhouse Museum and Shoppe

ADDRESS – 18120 Dixie Highway Homewood, IL 60430


MAIN MESSAGE – Appreciation for dollhouses for young and old.

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