April 20-- CHICAGO-"Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs," a new exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, seems a fitting one for our times, and that's part of why the North Side museum is putting it on.
"There were so many issues raised this last election year," says John Russick, the museum's vice president for interpretation and education. "Whether it's about vetting immigrants or questions of who can you trust, there's a lot of that in here. There's a lot in here for anyone who's interested in the long view."
The short view contains an ongoing investigation into allegations that a foreign power, Russia, conspired to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and whether it goes deeper than that, deep enough to write new chapters in a future version of this exhibit.
This traveling exhibition, bearing the subtitle "Fear and Freedom in America," is not so up-to-the-minute as to address those questions. But there are certainly points of resonance in its look back through American history to highlight moments when peace was threatened from within and the nation debated questions of safety and the sacrifice of civil liberties.
"We have sometimes gone too far," Russick says, noting what happened with the so-called anarchist riot at Haymarket Square here in Chicago: "People were executed, and people who were sitting in prison were later exonerated. There can be pitfalls to clamping down."
Some of these events are fairly well-known: the communist scare of the mid-20th century, for instance, or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the nationwide labor rights struggle that included the Haymarket bombing.
But if my experience is a guide, other events will be a revelation to visitors, or at least revealed in more depth. If I ever learned it, for instance, it has slipped my memory that a Pearl Harbor attack plane crash landed on a Hawaiian island, and the pilot, initially captured, by citizens was freed and rearmed by a Japanese-American.
This incident, the exhibition says, gave fuel to the fears about divided loyalties that led to the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans across the nation. The point is that this civilian roundup happened in a context even if, as the exhibition makes clear, concerns about Japanese-American loyalty "had no basis in fact" and would lead decades later to an official apology.
I learned, too, about German bombing campaigns within the United States prior to our entry into World War I, and about the Wisconsin town, Mosinee, where on May Day, 1950, "the local American Legion staged a daylong mock Communist coup dramatizing what life would be like under Soviet rule."
If that sounds a little bit scattershot in the approach, well, yes. This isn't the tapestry of subversive history so much as patches of it: Timothy McVeigh over here, Chicagoan Bernardine Dohrn and the Weather Underground there; Joseph McCarthy here, intercepted mail bombs to early 20th-century bigwigs there.
Contributing to the feeling is a herky-jerky layout, with the various stories existing as modules within a room rather than points on a pathway. This is a problem the history museum has had with other exhibits in this second-floor exhibit space, which is essentially two rooms that abut one another.
Age is another issue. The exhibit was developed, it seems, as a reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It debuted in 2004 at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and it has traveled steadily since, and to some pretty good places.
Chicago will be its final stop before retirement, the museum says, and it will go out without having treated such names of ongoing relevance as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks or the Patriot Act. A map of known hate groups in the U.S. is said to be from 2014, which means designers weren't sitting entirely on their hands, but that is part of a generally underwhelming depiction of anti-federal government movements, also including a "Militiaman's Workroom" stuffed with the materials to make a powerful bomb.
Similarly, "Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs" doesn't have much to add on the Sept. 11 attacks, although, as an artifacts, twisted metal said to be from the World Trade Center airplanes packs a punch.
This show is stronger when it is further back in history, telling us about the Ku Klux Klan marching on Washington and showing us Klan business cards that those, um, gentlemen apparently used to carry.
To handle the present day, there is a bulletin board headed "Fear and Freedom in America Today" pinned with articles about "Trump's border wall" and racist killer Dylan Roof. The goal, of course, is to be of the moment, but it also offers a slightly disconcerting echo of another flat surface in the exhibit pinned with printed matter, the wall in a militiaman's war room.
When: Through Oct. 1
Where: Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.
Tickets: Included with $16 general admission; 312-642-4600 or www.chicagohistory.org
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