Peoria Riverfront Museum is an extension of central Illinois’ educational system, on a mission to ‘unlock the full talent’ of thousands of schoolchildren
John Morris is like a proud dad, grandpa or uncle. He’s quick to show off cellphone photos of schoolchildren with big smiles on their faces, holding up their fingers to show the number of times they’ve visited the Peoria Riverfront Museum.
One, two, three — sometimes more — the kids display their digits.
He loves telling the story about the young boy, maybe fourth or fifth grade, who proudly showed up on a free family pass day with some 10 members of his family. The young man acted as the guide, pointing out the displays, answering questions, leading his family on a tour. He was proud and beaming.
That, Morris said, is what it’s all about — seeing young schoolchildren embrace what they’ve learned during visits to the museum — to their museum, he stresses.
“The first thing we do is build confidence. The second: Spark learning,” said Morris, who is in his seventh year serving as the museum’s president and CEO. “Confidence plus sparking learning, we think, unlocks the full talent of every individual.”
It all points to the museum’s mission: to inspire lifelong learning for all, connecting art, history, science and achievement through collections, exhibitions and programs.
As a finalist for the museum position, Morris recalled that during an interview, Sally Snyder, a founding museum board member and former president of the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education, spoke of her vision.
‘They get to ask questions that they don’t necessarily get answers to in their textbooks’
“Sally said, ‘I want every Peoria Public Schools student to come to the museum every year and it must be connected to the curriculum,’” Morris said.
Snyder, now an emeritus museum board member and one of its most ardent volunteers, recalled the challenge: “I thought it would be one of the greatest gifts we could give back to Peoria. We built a museum Downtown for a reason. If we were going to be a community museum, it needed to be Downtown.”
Morris took the challenge to heart. Even at the April 2017 news conference to announce his appointment, he was late for the TV cameras and crowd, as he had stepped away to hold open the door and greet members of a school group coming in for a field trip to see the Titanic exhibit.
The Every Student Initiative
The museum’s Every Student Initiative (ESI) was launched within a year of Morris becoming CEO. Philanthropist Polly Barton committed the $50,000 startup funding. Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat then agreed to send every kindergarten through eighth-grade student to the museum each year.
ESI aims to provide curriculum-based visits to the facility for central Illinois students. Now in its sixth year, ESI serves schoolchildren from 46 schools in nine public and private school districts. ESI has sponsored more than 60,000 students in total, with 16,000 visits this past school year, said Everley Davis, educator and student engagement coordinator.
“We have a program bigger and better than anything I could dream,” Snyder said.
Desmoulin-Kherat calls the initiative “a forward-thinking idea.”
“Hopefully, we are nurturing future-going museum enthusiasts, thanks to the vision of Sally Snyder, John Morris and the Barton family,” she said.
Part of what Davis does is partner with curriculum directors to understand what is being taught in classrooms.
“We can feed into what they’re learning and fill in the gaps,” Davis said. There’s always something on display there that can enhance a student’s classroom experience.
Davis tells about how the Peoria Jewish Federation assisted in bringing in the children of Holocaust survivors to speak to eighth-grade students.
“They get to ask questions that they don’t necessarily get answers to in their textbooks,” she said. “I know for a few teachers, it made their classroom discussion more fruitful.”
In addition, the museum connects educators to outside resources for distance-learning opportunities to supplement classroom work.
Curating to meet the needs
The educational and curatorial components of the museum work well together, said Bill Conger, curator of collections and exhibits.
‘The majority of our students are visual learners. I like that they can incorporate all of their five senses’
“The lucky part of our multidisciplinary focus of science, art, history and achievement is that we cover much of the education curriculum,” he said. “If we’re doing our job curatorially, it’s very easy for education to tie in.”
Many of the self-curated exhibits on loan allow students to be up close and personal with authentic and famous works of art, look inside the human body and immerse themselves in a variety of experiences.
Desmoulin-Kherat said district educators share with each child that museums are pillars of culture and learning where people can explore different traditions, new ideas and distinct art forms.
“This is a unique opportunity that many of our students would not be able to experience otherwise,” she said. “The majority of our students are visual learners. I like that they can incorporate all of their five senses once there. The exhibits, movies and artifacts at the museum bring many concepts to life for our students.”