New Chicago media museum settles in, for good this time

June 15, 2011

View from Kinzie Street

Founders of the Museum of Broadcast Communications hope a sneak preview of the new building Thursday will be the beginning of the end of the museum’s long saga, one that has almost outweighed the history of the artifacts within it.

In 2003, after more than a decade at the Chicago Cultural Center, the museum hatched plans to purchase and build its own new state-of-the-art facility at State and Kinzie in Chicago.  Two years later, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich promised a critical $8 million dollars in state funding for the project, but the money never came. Construction came to a halt, and the site was locked up and idle until last September.

The staff’s new narrative paints Gov. Pat Quinn as a patron, rescuing the museum from the dead, or at least from a long-term coma. It was funded largely though Quinn’s Illinois Jobs Now! Program, which contributed $6 million to the building effort. Active donations from companies such as Disney, Viacom’s TV Land, and Exelon, as well as individual donors like Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and Betty White, have also revived the project.

Quinn, as well as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois state senate president John Cullerton, will be in attendance Thursday to celebrate the end of the construction of the shell of the building, though interior exhibit spaces are still a work in process, and many are awaiting funding.  Quinn's support of the museum follows support for other entertainment-related ventures, including Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, which received a $5 million investment from the state.

The realization of a vision

Originally, the museum was the idea of just one man, though he has quiet a legacy behind him: Founder, President and CEO Bruce DuMont was first inspired to start this museum in 1982, when he was producing the WBBM-TV show Channel 2: The People. He’s of the DuMont family, who started the DuMont Television Network; Allen DuMont invented the first cathode ray tube used in television receivers.

Bruce DuMont says at WBBM he “saw the way in which archives were being mishandled,” and felt motivated to save these materials, calling himself a “committee of one.” The first donation to the new project came from Rance Crain. Crain's Advertising Age matched the contribution, and the project began to chug along from there.

The museum staff aims for the State and Kinzie location to fully open at the end of the year, 20 years after the idea first sprung from DuMont’s head. Though it will be a broad and strenuous look at media, expect a very Chicago feel to the exhibits. “You’ve definitely got that flavor running through it. Chicago definitely has a prominent place in broadcasting history,” said spokesperson Marc Wylie.

A recent major acquisition to the museum has been the doors to Oprah’s The Oprah Winfrey Show stage, and a larger than life art piece entitled Media Tower by Mark Patsfall. It’s a huge sculpture made up of media materials and technologies past and present.  It stands in the lobby at 17 feet tall and weighs 1,200 pounds.

DuMont hopes the museum will be a place to actually interact with media, which they expect will be particularly appealing to younger visitors. Instead of it being a straight trip through history, they’re dividing the exhibits into programming genres, some of which are tagged together; Comedy, Drama, Music, News, Talk, Sports, Game Shows, Programming for Children, and commercials will all have their place. He’d like for these sections to spur contemporary discussion of media-related issues, because “the world today is so media-centric.”

On this issue, DuMont recognizes that the museum will have to evolve quickly to keep up with the new sources they’ll be historicizing.  “It doesn’t mean you have to change the graphics on every exhibit every two weeks," said DuMont. "Jack Benny was who Jack Benny was.”

Ultimately, DuMont is excited to show the work that goes into the field he’s devoted his life’s work to.

“What we’re trying to do is let people know that is it isn’t just the person you hear on the air or on camera that makes up that production – behind that person are writers and producers and editors who create the ultimate project,” said DuMont.