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An exterior view of Dunham Hall where the Schingoethe Center Museum is located on the campus of Aurora University. Contributed photo
If you go
The museum is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesdays; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Dunham Hall is located on the north side of the Aurora University campus at the intersection of Randall Road and Marsellaise Place. Admission is free. Teacher kits are available for a nominal fee by contacting the museum at (630) 844-7843 or visiting the website at www.aurora.edu/museum. The website also lists a schedule of guest speakers and programs which are free and open to the public.
AURORA — Dozens of children line up and file into the Schingoethe Center museum in the basement of Aurora University’s Dunham Hall. The museum is dedicated to the history, art and culture of North America’s native populations and hosts thousands of visitors every year. Yet, the location may be a surprise to many students and their families since it’s not on the usual map of destinations for visitors to the metropolitan Chicago area. “We do get probably in a slow year, as many as 3,000 children and in a larger year, about 7,000 children,” said Meg Bero, executive director. “I think the fact that we’re part of a university as opposed to being on a main road probably has something to do with it.” Bero has been with the museum almost since it was first opened in 1990 through a gift from Herbert and Martha Schingoethe for construction of the hall and subsequent donation of their large collection of artifacts. In addition to the concentration of Native American artifacts, the museum sets itself apart by offering a variety of hands-on activities for visitors of all ages. “When I was younger, I don’t ever remember doing as much hands-on stuff,” said Elizabeth Easto, graduate fellow. “We were told to sit down, listen and just try to absorb it all. Now they want to do the hands-on thing. That helps them understand how those concepts work.” Easto showed children how native people once lived in Illinois. A wigwam and other period artifacts along with reproductions give children a chance to learn about life and culture among the woodlands Indians that populated the area well before the Europeans started arriving. “We know that Native Americans have been here for at least 12,000 years,” Bero said. “But, we’re still finding evidence that they were here 15,000, 20,000, 35,000 years ago.” Bero, a former public school art teacher, brings an enthusiasm to her position that shows when addressing children who obviously don’t want to sit still. She engages them in discussions and asks all the right questions while gently guiding third-grade students from Sandburg Elementary School in Wheaton. Sheralee Kirschbaum, one of the teachers, said this is the second year the classes have visited the Schingoethe Center. “We enjoyed it so much that we wanted to come back,” she said. “So much of it is hands-on so it’s very kid-friendly.” The third grade regularly studies Native Americans at school in preparation for Native American Heritage Month celebrated in November. “We tend to study Native Americans as if they’re living in the past,” Bero said. “Native Americans have changed, but they have their traditions just as we do today.” When she’s not giving tours to grade school students, she said the museum also stays busy with families who return with their children to visit. Some classes come prepared with materials for a scavenger hunt through the various displays at the museum, while others can take advantage of the museum’s artifact hunt. Bero said they also host Boy and Girl Scout groups during the year. Different exhibits in the museum have the usual artifacts displayed behind glass doors, but other areas are open and accessible. Bero shows students drawers where artifacts are kept and even helps them understand what constitutes an artifact. Arrowheads, beaver pelts and tanned hides are passed around between students and materials for building a model tipi rests in a corner near a display for the Plains peoples that hunted the bison. Bero guides them through the different displays and explains how their lives have been documented and researched over the years. “Archaeologists found some of these tools and weapons in the ground that native Americans made a very long time ago,” she said. “Artifacts are something that is made or shaped by human hands.” Bero guides students through the different regions of North America and helps students understand how life would differ between people living in the arctic regions as opposed to those in the desert southwest. Probably the most interesting story is the one about the Navajo. “Do you know who gave the Navajo the loom?” she asked. “Spiderman — but this is a different Spiderman. This is the Navajo Spiderman who existed long before the Spiderman from the comic book. Spiderman gave the loom to his wife, Spiderwoman. This is the Navajo story about the loom and how they got weaving. They believe that Spiderwoman lived in the rock and she asked her husband to bring her a loom so she could weave. As we know spiders like to weave wonderful webs and so they continue their weaving tradition.” To reinforce the concept of weaving, Bero has a small loom available with a pile of colorful ribbons. Children eagerly lined up to temporarily make their own tapestries before moving on to a display of Native American children’s toys. The children were encouraged to find similarities between their toys of today and the dolls and miniature bows that not only entertained native children, but also helped them learn the skills they would need as they grew up. The Schingoethe Center also boasts ties to Mendota, a local city that means “crossing of the trails.” Aurora University originally was founded as Advent College in 1893 on the grounds of what would eventually become the site for the original Mendota High School. Along with native artifacts, the museum currently has a display called “Unraveling Revelations: Decoding the Prophetic Charts” that was prepared by students in the university’s museum studies minor course of study. Bero notes the charts don’t exactly fit with the Native American displays and artifacts, but it does reflect the history of the university. “We were celebrating our centennial of our 100 year move from Mendota to Aurora this year,” she said. “Aurora University started in Mendota in 1893. In 1912, it moved here to Aurora. These charts actually come from that era.” The exhibit was awarded the Illinois Association of Museums Award for Excellence and Exhibitions. It will remain available until Dec. 14.