About Illinois State Museum's Peoples of the Past Exhibit

Illinois first attracted people 12,000 years ago, when the Paleo-Indians came to America across the Bering Strait, and when Ice Age mammoths and mastodons roamed the Midwest. Since then, numerous prehistoric peoples occupied this area, taking advantage of the rich natural environment; the fertile soil left by glacial activities; and the abundance of wild animal and plant foods from forests, prairies, rivers, streams, and lakes.

But how much do we know about these ancient peoples, about how and where they lived?

The Illinois State Museum's Peoples of the Pasts exhibit hall answers these questions.

The hall features four life-sized exhibits which trace the evolution of prehistoric cultures in North America--from the bands of prehistoric hunters who roamed Illinois 4,000 years ago, to the tribal societies that settlers from the East encountered at the beginning of the 19th century.

Each of the four exhibits portrays a different cultural period, termed by anthropologists as the Archaic (8000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.), Woodland (1000 B.C. to A.D. 900), Mississippian (A.D. 900 to A.D. 1400), and Historic (A.D. 1673 to mid-1800s). Each period represents distinct differences in lifeways--social and political structure, settlement patterns, diet, hunting practices, trade and other activities.

It is one of the few exhibits in the United States in which prehistory is brought to life Rather than rely on displays of artifacts to tell the story of these people, the exhibits go many steps further to portray the various prehistoric Indians themselves and their respective lifestyles.

To illustrate the story, the dioramas are arranged in chronological order in one open exhibit hall. The exhibition contains: four ceiling-to-floor (15 feet high by 40 feet wide) hand-illustrated background paintings: hundreds of authentic and meticulously-fabricated replicas of plants, animals and artifacts; and eight life-sized sculpted human figures.

An orientation center, audio phones, and exhibit labels provide interpretation of the entire range of activities shown in the dioramas, and meaningful comparisons and contrasts among the exhibits are identified.

The exhibition was designed to have a strong visual impact, to give the visitor the sense of having stepped into prehistory.

Visitors will experience the feeling of entering a three-dimensional world, one in which they are eye-to eye with a young native man as he prepares for a trading expedition, or a five-year-old Indian girl helping her mother steam mussels along the Wabash River 4,000 years ago.

Anthropological information illustrated in each exhibit is based on research conducted by Illinois State Museum scientists and other scholars.

Visitors will be able to see lifeways that not longer exits, as well as environments that have vanished--except in very small remnants--from the Illinois landscape. Industrialization, lumbering and agriculture have played major roles in the disappearance of the virgin forest, the backwater lakes in the river flood plains, the temple mounds and the prairie.

Much of what is portrayed in the exhibition is relevant today. Prehistoric cultures flourished for long periods and then declined. Early experiments in urbanism resulted in many of the same political, social and environmental problems experienced by modern cities; depletion of the natural resources was even a problem in A.D. 1200.

In microcosm, many prehistoric societies faced the same real and philosophical aspirations and problems in man-to-man and man-to-land relationships that challenge us today.

The comprehensiveness of the exhibit--in telling the story behind the artifacts and the Indian--is intended to increase the level of public awareness of Illinois' rich human and natural heritage.

top of Exhibit Tour
ISM Welcome Page.