Cool objects like the 76-foot-long fin whale skeleton and functional 1920s Driggs biplane suspended from a ceiling high above the ground floor at the Grand Rapids Public Museum draw a lot of attention from young visitors. Exhibits like an alphabet-based hunt throughout the museum, dinosaurs, an authentic mummy, and a working 1920s carousel keep young visitors’ interest, making this western Michigan museum particularly family-friendly.
It’s difficult to imagine this spacious, light-filled museum on the west bank of the Grand River as a small collection in a rented room, but that’s exactly how this museum started out over 150 years ago.
In 1854, civic leaders established the Grand Rapids Lyceum of Natural History, which they envisioned as a library and museum. By 1857, the group leased a room and displayed mineral specimens, birds, reptiles, and other natural artifacts arranged in strict, scientific categories.
The group suspended operations at the outbreak of the Civil War, but the Lyceum group re-emerged by 1868 to merge with the Grand Rapids Scientific Club, forming the Kent Scientific Institute and Museum.
The Kent Scientific Institute Gallery in today’s museum replicates its pre-1900 exhibit hall with artifacts arranged in a Victorian-era setting featuring dark wood, formal furniture, and a big stuffed moose head.
Today the museum is a modern museum of cultural and natural history, primarily housed in the Van Andel Museum Center. The building, named for the principal donor and fundraiser involved in its 1994 construction, has 80,000 square feet of permanent exhibition space and a 9,500-square-foot gallery for traveling exhibits.
The building’s architecture is a nice blend of vintage and modern with its red-and-cream brick exterior reminiscent of the nineteenth-century furniture factories and mills (like the flour mill that once occupied the site), with an interior that incorporates natural light and a riverside view as a major architectural element.
Our most recent visits to the museum came in autumn of 2010, when the museum drew 240,000 visitors as a venue for 27 ArtPrize artists, and early this year during a quiet winter weekday when we had time to tour the museum’s permanent exhibits.
Visitors can start on the ground floor and work their way up to the third-floor galleries that include temporary exhibits and the 145-seat Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium, named for the Grand Rapids-born astronaut who died in the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire, or they can start on the third floor and work their way to the ground floor, saving the ¾-scale recreation of 1890s Streets of Old Grand Rapids and a ride on the carousel for last.
Visit the Streets of Old Grand Rapids, Furniture City, Newcomers, and Anishinabek displays to learn more about the history of Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids earned its nickname as “Furniture City” in the nineteenth century for its fine furniture. The Furniture City gallery follows the story of the industry in Grand Rapids through its present-day preeminence in manufacturing office and commercial furniture.
The Newcomers exhibit is the newest permanent exhibit, sharing the stories of the more than 45 ethnic groups calling western Michigan home through the years.
The 5,000-square-foot Anishinabek: The People of This Place gallery on the third floor examines the life, work, and art of the Grand Rapids area’s earliest inhabitants, featuring audio recordings, photographs, documents, weapons, tools, and some beautiful decorative clothing, baskets, and other artwork. The Anishinabek (“the real people”) refers to tribes like the Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Chippewa already living in the region as other settlers arrived, with as many as 25,000 direct descendents of those tribes still living in the Grand Rapids area.
Upcoming special exhibits at the Grand Rapids Public Museum include; Thank God for Michigan! Stories from the Civil War, featuring uniforms, weapons, photographs, and other artifacts from the museum’s collection and opening later this month; Great Lakes Shipwrecks, opening in November 2012; and an exhibit featuring the Titanic, the famously “unsinkable” ship that sunk in 1912, with artifacts recovered from the ship in 1985, opening in early 2013.
I’m just a big kid at heart, so you know I had to ride the museum’s carousel. Be sure to check back here later this week for that story and photos.
Want to learn more? Check out Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City by Christian G. Carron or Historic Photos of Grand Rapids by Karolee Hazelwood.
© Dominique King 2011 All rights reserved