Des Plaines History Center is more than a place to store old documents and antiques. It gives residents a tangible connection to their heritage -- such as in its current exhibit celebrating 100 years of the Des Plaines Park District.
"We use our exhibits, archives and maps to tell the history of our town," said Philip Mohr, history center executive director. "We work to develop and sustain a sense of place, so Des Plaines isn't just where you live -- it's a place where you have a connection to the landscape and to the heritage."
Founded in 1967, the center features records dating back to the 1830s. These records are donated by residents and preserved in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment. Mohr said each record is carefully selected based on its ability to reveal something new about the area.
While it is important for residents to feel connected to their city, it is also important for them to realize that its history is not perfect. This is why the center works to provide an unbiased view, allowing visitors to gain a raw perspective of the positive and negative aspects of the town's past.
"We try to portray the reality of history," Mohr said. "We draw together the good and the bad to make quality exhibits that tell the truth."
One current exhibit honors the centennial anniversary of the Des Plaines Park District. Organized by center curator Siobhan Heraty, the exhibit displays all of the center's records of the park district. A past exhibit, "Then and Now," displayed old photographs alongside new photographs in the same locations.
Kathy Vana, a member of the history center's board of trustees, organized it as a volunteer project.
The center also offers a variety of programs to enhance the learning experiences provided by its exhibits and tours.
One current summer program is the annual "Summer Adventures for Kids" series. From 1-3 p.m. Wednesdays, children ages 5-12 are able to travel through time with world history lessons covering civilizations ranging from Ancient Egypt to Colonial America. Each weekly lesson is accompanied by a craft, project or game.
The series will wrap up Aug. 21 with a final lesson where each child will reflect on past civilizations and speculate about what the future holds. The series is free and welcomes drop-ins.
"We're hoping to give kids a sample of history," Mohr said. "We want to help them develop a sense of change over time and an appreciation for different cultures."
Another upcoming event is the annual picnic. On Aug. 18, residents of all ages are invited to attend a lunch buffet featuring folk music from Chicago-based band White Mule and board games such as chess and checkers. The cost is $15 per person.
The center also frequently holds coffee talks, book discussions and other events.
"There's always something going on here," Vana said. "People always seem to have a good time -- they always stay later than we'd expect."
To increase the quality of these events, the center offers volunteer opportunities ranging from giving tours to data entry to gardening. Volunteers are placed based on their skills and interests. Vana said volunteers can benefit from the experience almost as much as the center.
"As a volunteer, when you're looking through old documents and photographs, you're just learning and learning," Vana said.
The Des Plaines History Center is primarily funded by the city of Des Plaines and Des Plaines Park District. But it is a private organization, so it relies on memberships to further enhance its programs and engage a broader audience.
Membership is the best way to stay in touch, learn about upcoming programs and support the center at a low cost, Mohr said. Members are also provided with free access to research services.
For information about volunteer opportunities and membership, contact the center at (847) 391-5399 or visit desplaineshistory.org.
With or without membership, admission to the center, 781 Pearson St., Des Plaines, is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 1-4 p.m. Sundays.
"(Visiting the center) is a learning experience," Mohr said. "We're taking the best lessons from the successes and mistakes of our history and using them as guides for the future. We're telling the story of Des Plaines."