In 2002, the Midway Village Museum (MVM) faced a crisis. Community focus groups viewed MVM less as Rockford’s history museum and more as a place that talked about Rockford’s Swedish community and elite industrialists. Rockford’s large Italian community even criticized MVM in print for not recognizing their part in the city’s history. In reality, many ethnic groups played a role in Rockford’s growth, and today the public schools serve students speaking 40 different languages. To increase its relevance to its community, MVM needed to become everyone’s museum.
A new 6,000 square foot permanent exhibit, Many Faces, One Community, was built to explore the history of immigration to Rockford and the ethnic groups who have impacted the community’s growth. MVM asked elementary and middle school teachers for input. Teachers asked for immersive “time-travelling” experiences for their students and for content on how various ethnic groups have assimilated. MVM also partnered with a dozen local immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations, ethnic clubs, and museums. These partners not only served as community supporters of the project, they also helped recruit Rockford residents who were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, to tell their stories. MVM used the resulting 56 oral histories, representing immigrants from 25 countries, as the basis of the exhibit.
In 2012, phase one of the exhibit opened: a replica train depot and furniture factory. These immersive structures include sounds of passengers arriving and machines running. While discussing the struggles of arriving in a new country and assimilating, visitors get their hands on history. They spin the wheel of fate as they arrive at the depot, pack a trunk to see what they could take with them as they emigrated, and listen to oral history excerpts. In the factory visitors assemble door panels, or submit an employment application and learn of work discrimination of past eras (non-Swedes need not apply). In July 2014, the second phase opened: an immigrant home and ethnic commercial district. Visitors meet families of different cultural backgrounds in the rooms of the house. The stores of the commercial streets share immigrant stories while providing areas for MVM to display artifacts. A citizenship test, smell station, iPad slideshows, and a photo opportunity invite visitors to interact with each other and the exhibit.
MVM’s interpretive past focused on a narrow and elitist version of history, but with Many Faces, One Community, the museum serves Rockford’s multi-cultural population and offers many ethnic groups inclusion in Rockford’s story. The museum has even planned (through iPad slideshows and changing exhibit cases) for inclusion of new groups arriving in the future. This exhibit truly revolutionized the museum and how it interacts with its growing and changing community.