A history exhibit that occupies a key first-floor hallway in the DuPage County government administration building in Wheaton is the subject of an effort to update it, including potentially profiling a more diverse set of achievers throughout the county’s history.
Known as the Heritage Gallery, the exhibit was created in 1980 in a first-floor atrium hallway that links two parts of DuPage’s massive government administration building, 421 N. County Farm Road, and that is in a public portion of the building. The Heritage Gallery was formed as a way of celebrating noted DuPage County natives, and among those receiving recognition in thegallery are football great Harold “Red” Grange, evangelist Billy Graham, astronomer Grote Reber, opera singer Sherrill Milnes, industrialist and gambler John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates, author Anna Landon and Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick.
A privately funded nonprofit group, DuPage Heritage Gallery Inc., at one time was behind the formation and maintenance of the Heritage Gallery. However, in recent years, the organization has become moribund, with some board members passing away, and others in their 90s. With that group’s effective disbanding, representatives of its remaining trustees agreed to deed ownership and maintenance of the exhibit to the DuPage County Department of Public Works in fall 2020, said DuPage County Board member Dawn DeSart, D-Aurora.
Now, Becky Simon of Naperville, a member of the League of Women Voters, is calling for major changes to the Heritage Gallery, which though highly visible hasn’t had an addition or an update since 1991.
“It’s the gallery of (mostly) famous white men only,” Simon told the Tribune. “It’s all white Christian hetero(sexual) people, and it completely overlooks some of the most amazing stories there have been in DuPage County. We feel that there are many, many people who have been overlooked, and it’s time to give them their due.”
DeSart acknowledged that despite the Heritage Gallery’s relatively prominent location, she wasn’t aware of the exhibit’s existence until the fall of 2019, when Simon approached her after a DuPage County Board meeting to raise the issue. Since that time, a small group of community leaders who want the gallery to be more diverse and inclusive, including DeSart and Simon, has been meeting, and those efforts culminated in the county taking over possession of the Heritage Gallery in 2020.
DeSart said her group continues to meet and to study the origins of the items in the gallery. Paperwork related to the gallery and its artifacts is housed in several locations, including at the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton and at Wheaton College’s Buswell Memorial Library, she said. The group recently spent an afternoon at each location, studying documents and seeking to ascertain the provenance of all artifacts in the exhibit.
Ultimately, DeSart said she favors an update to the gallery. She noted that the local National Organization for Women chapter wrote a letter to the Wheaton Daily Journal newspaper in March 1989, requesting that the gallery be more inclusive. At present, Landon is the only woman featured in the display.
“The gallery has been stagnant since 1991, and our little group would like to have it become more of a ‘destination’ location,” DeSart said. “This is a small group of DuPage County community leaders who want the gallery to be more diverse, inclusive and representative of DuPage County residents, and I could not agree more. This gallery must include all of DuPage County’s beautiful mosaic of faiths, colors, sexes, etc.”
DeSart acknowledged challenges to her group’s goals, however. She noted that she is an ally of the LGBTQ community, including serving on Naper Pride’s board of directors, and that she favors representation of that community in the exhibit.
“I would love to see that community represented in the gallery, but when speaking with members of that community, it’s a challenge because many in 2022 are afraid to out themselves, let alone trying to find historical DuPage County figures who were out 50 years ago, at the time of the Stonewall riots in 1969.”
The chair of the county’s Public Works Committee, County Board member Mary Ozog, D-Glen Ellyn, said she also supports updating the exhibit and making it “more contemporary.”
“This would be a really nice segue between the two corridors to update it and make it more relevant to who DuPage County is today,” Ozog said. “I’m very much in favor of doing what we can to update it. There are always budget constraints and certainly we want to be sensitive to various groups, but we could consider perhaps doing a rotating type of exhibit. But as for updating it, I’m completely in support, so we’ll see what we are able to do with it.”
DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, a Republican, declined to weigh in specifically on whether or not to expand the Heritage Gallery. In a statement, Cronin said that “if members of the Public Works Committee develop a specific proposal regarding the Heritage Gallery, I’m sure their fellow board members and I will give it careful consideration.”
Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.