Lesson Plans

Representation and Community: the Changing Role of Museums in Illinois

The Illinois Governor's Mansion in Springfield, Illinois. Image courtesy of Resilient Heritage. United States, 2019.

The Illinois Governor's Mansion in Springfield, Illinois. Image courtesy of Resilient Heritage. United States, 2019.


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Describe the role of a museum in capturing significant events in history.
  • Evaluate the role of museums in local and national conversation about representation.
  • Examine a museum’s relationship to the public.                   
  • Describe how systemic funding practices affect smaller cultural institutions


The pandemic has changed lives around the globe. Take a moment to reflect on how the pandemic has changed you and your community:

  • How has your life changed?
  • What activities are you doing now that you didn’t do before the pandemic?
  • How does your neighborhood look and feel different than it did before? Consider local businesses, schools, parks, and museum spaces.
  • Have you experienced any positive changes in yourself, in your relationships with others, or in the way you engage with the outside world?

Share your responses aloud with your class or respond to these questions on a separate piece of paper.

Introducing the Resource:

The Prairies State Museum Project: The Impact of COVID-19 on Illinois Museums elevates the stories of museums in Illinois and their inherent community and economic value as they face the COVID crisis.

This lesson plan focuses on a selection of articles from this project that explores the responsibility museums have to support the public during the challenges of COVID and the importance of authentically representing the experiences and legacies of diverse local communities.

This lesson plan focuses on three major themes explored in the reporting. Review the following themes and choose a collection of articles to explore:

Capturing History through COVID-19

While facing many of the same obstacles that local businesses and schools are facing, museums are uniquely positioned to reflect the experience of the pandemic for current and future generations. Some museums are proactively seeking materials from the community to highlight this unique time in history.

Read Karen Ackerman Witter’s article for Illinois Times, “Capturing Stories of Life in Illinois,” and answer the following comprehension questions:

  • How are these museums choosing to capture the experience of life during COVID? What kinds of materials are museums looking for?
  • According to the article, “Capturing Stories of Life in Illinois", why is it important to capture our experiences with COVID in museum spaces?

Read Taylor Moore’s article for Chicago Magazine entitled “How Will Museums Remember this Moment?”  and answer the following questions:

  • What is an archivist?
  • According to the article, “How Will Museums Remember This Moment?”which communities in Chicago are not being reflected in the museum collections?
  • Why does an organization like the Blackivists exist? Why is their voice important?
  • How is the lack of documentation around Black experiences rooted in historical underrepresentation?

Reflection Questions:

  • Can museum initiatives like the Illinois Stories COVID-19 Collecting Initiative and the In This Together Project encourage connection and healing? Locally? Globally? Historically? Why or why not?
  • Does the under-representation of Black and brown communities in these initiatives highlight a greater conflict in Illinois and Chicago? Why or why not?
  • Whose stories do museums have a responsibility to tell? Why?
  • How do issues of underrepresentation intersect with the themes fueling anti-racist protests across the country?
  • How can we begin to tell authentic stories about underrepresented communities in our own communities?

Museums and Community Responsibility

While some museums struggle to stay afloat, bring patrons through the door, and adapt to a remote climate, other museums are redistributing their efforts to support communities in need. The following articles describe how two different museums in Chicago are shifting their work to support struggling community members,

Read Claire Voon’s article for ARTnews, “Crisis and Community: How Chicago’s Rebuild Foundation is Closing the Gap Between Art Spaces and the People They Serve,” and answer the following questions:

  • How is Rebuild Foundation adapting to support Chicagoans during the pandemic and amidst protests? What has motivated these changes?
  • How is Theaster Gates urging museums to rethink their role as an institution?

Read Carlos Ballesteros’ article for South Side Weekly, “Museum of the Future: The National Public Housing Museum Adapts to COVID-19,” and answer the following questions:

  • What is the mission of The National Public Housing Museum and how does the museum plan to destigmatize public housing?
  • Why is The National Public Housing Museum able to easily adapt to the pandemic climate while most museums are struggling to stay afloat?
  • Why does Lisa Yun Lee claim that the story of public housing is at the heart of health discussions in light of COVID?

Reflection Questions:

  • How are The Rebuild Foundation and The National Public Housing Museum renegotiating the relationship between museums and communities?
  • Do museums have a responsibility to support communities during challenging times? Why or why not?
  • Why is it easier for smaller museums to adapt to supporters and advocates for the communities they serve? What are the challenges that larger museums might face in adapting to that role?
  • In what ways can museums adapt and continue to be “open to the public”?

Elevating Under-represented Voices in Museum Spaces

In the following articles for WBEZ, Mark Braboy and Olivia Cunningham discuss how the financial challenges that The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and the DuSable Museum are facing highlight the impact of inequitable funding practices on museums that represent communities of color.

Read the article, “As Big Museums Get Rescue Grants, the President of the Nation’s Only Puerto Rican Museum Says He’s ‘Tired of Being Left Behind,’”and respond to the following comprehension questions:

  • Why do some museums receive more financial aid than others? How does the difference in financial aid impact museums of color?
  • Explain Oscar Luis Martinez’s argument against providing government funding to museums like The Art Institute of Chicago.
  • What are the long-term consequences of unequal funding?
  • Why is it important for people of color to be represented on museum boards?
  • How is NMPRAC engaging with communities in their current exhibit?

Read  “The Keepers of Chicago’s Black History Fight to Stay Alive During the Pandemic,” and answer the following questions:

  • How has the Illinois statewide shutdown affected the DuSable Museum’s staff and reopening?
  • What is the irony of the museum being closed in the wake of protests? How might protests compel funders to rethink their priorities?
  • How is the museum trying to overcome financial obstacles?
  • How is unequal funding affecting small museums like DuSable?
  • What role have Black museums played in the past during social justice movements and what role can an institution like DuSable play in the conversation about racial justice in Chicago?

Reflection Questions:

  • What accounts for the disproportionate funding landscape? How can funding be more equitable?
  • Do larger museums have a responsibility to smaller museums that represent communities of color? If so, what does that responsibility look like? How should museums support each other now and in the future?
  • Do the challenges that smaller museums face reflect a greater issue of representation in the city? Why or why not?

Extension Activities

Option 1: Create a personal or class exhibit

Both “In This Together” and “Illinois Stories COVID-19” capture a range of writing, photography, and artwork to represent the nuanced experience of living through this pandemic. Collect a range of artwork, photography, writing, or music that represents your class’s experience living through this time. You can choose to make this original work or curate work from professional contemporary artists. If students are creating individual exhibits, they can capture the experience of COVID-19 in their homes and personal communities.

For brainstorming ideas, the Chicago History Museum has this list of questions to help anyone explore their own experience living through the pandemic. You can access the list of questions here.

For support in creating an exhibit, reference The Pulitzer Center’s Everyday DC unit, which guides students to apply photography, photo analysis, and investigative reporting skills to create photo essays and compile photo exhibitions.

Option 2: Imagine the Museums of the Future

In “The Museum of the Future: The National Public Housing Museum Adapts to COVID-19,” Lisa Yun Lee described how COVID-19 is decolonizing museums and changing their role in the community. She said, “Most museums are places where old things are on display, you look at them, and you’re quiet. I don’t think our museum will be that way.”

Write an essay, create a pamphlet, or a website that envisions museums of the future. How will they engage with the public? What role will they have in society and how will methods of preserving culture and history appear different than they do now?

Option 3: Write a letter advocating for change

Make a list of local museums and visit their websites. Do they give back to their community? In what ways? If their outreach seems unsatisfactory, brainstorm ways the museum can give back to others and draft a letter to the museum president, urging them to take action and support the public. This can be anything from promoting local artists, teaming up with local nonprofits to provide support to marginalized communities, highlighting under-represented voices, featuring exhibitions that reflect diverse experiences, providing mental health resources, or training programs.

Students can use resources from our Local Letters Writing Contest to help craft their persuasive letter or address this letter to a local state representative to enter the contest.

Option 4: Tour Illinois Museums that capture Black and Latinx experiences

The Prairie State Museum Project highlights a number of museums across the state that are dedicated to showcasing the experience and legacy of Black Americans. Review articles highlighting museums that focus on Black and Latinx culture and history. Tour each museum’s website and create a pamphlet, presentation, or blog post that reviews at least four museums. You can discuss their collections, their digital offerings, their community outreach initiatives, and the importance of their work to current and future generations.

Option 5: Find under-reported local stories during COVID-19

When telling stories about COVID-19, some voices struggle to be heard. What are the under-represented stories in your school or neighborhood? This can be anyone from a staff member at your school, to a group of students who are being uniquely impacted by the pandemic. Determine who they are and tell their story. Embark on your own reporting project and pitch it to your school newspaper.

For more support on finding and telling under-reported stories, check out How to Find and Analyze Under-reported Stories.

Option 6: Create a graphic novel that explores Past, Present, and Future You

The pandemic is changing all of us – in great ways and challenging ways. Consider yourself as three people: past you, present you, and future you. How have you changed? Create a graphic novella that explores these different identities and the impact of social distancing on your values, habits, personality, mindset, relationships, and environment.

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