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Occupation: museum director 2005-10-05

Category: News

Dan Portincaso and Peg Strobel with a portrait of Jane Addams
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Lisa Stodder
Hull-House staff Dan Portincaso and Peg Strobel. A portrait of Jane Addams hangs at right.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

You haven't been to the Jane Addams' Hull-House Museum yet?

Just because the museum, a former settlement house active from 1889 to 1963, is no longer used for social welfare programs, doesn't mean its work doesn't convey a powerful message in 2005. Issues such as discrimination, sweatshop labor, immigration and civil liberties have not gone away. These messages are critical now, says director Peg Strobel.

And lucky for us that the settlement house is still around today to remind visitors there are ideals worth fighting for.

Museums can idealize people and history. For instance, Hull-House has many portraits of Jane Addams. Here's Jane cutting a romantic figure, and here she appears gentle and demure. Another depicts the pioneer social worker in pearls.

But don't let the pearls and gentility fool you. The FBI once termed Addams one of the most dangerous women in America, yet she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

"I like going up the stairs she went up and down," says museum director, Peg Strobel, ascending the red staircase to her office.

There hangs a mammoth portrait of several social reformers at a 1912 suffrage parade. Under its gaze, Strobel gets to work.

Hull-House sponsored a conference last November, "Using the Past to Shape the Future," a topic vital to the museum's mission.

"One of the things we're trying to do is to interpret the history of Hull-House in a way that connects it more directly with contemporary issues," Stobel says.

"We're trying to think about how we can use history, not just to provide background information for present-day issues, but to use the power of a place and its historic ideas to bring people together to discuss issues of contemporary relevance and conflict."

Strobel writes a lot of grants these days, she says wearily. But her eyes light up when she recalls the stories of those who were in some way touched by Hull-House.

"I've grown to be even more awed by what people here accomplished. While Jane Addams is always going to be the most famous person, we're trying to feature other residents and people from the neighborhood whose lives were transformed by Hull-House."

An ongoing archive begun in the 1970s includes more than 100 taped interviews documenting the experiences of people at Hull-House.

Sometimes Strobel is called downstairs because someone has wandered in who grew up in the neighborhood and has stories to tell.

One woman came there as a little girl to use the library; a man recalled running around the building when his father was its janitor (his father's keys are now on display.) Another — now a Chicago bookstore owner — took violin lessons here.

"It's just wonderful to make that connection with people," Strobel says.

In a neighboring office, assistant director Rima Schultz sits with student interns talking about ideas and current projects, a discussion that segues into the issues of the day.

"You have to talk history and politics to work here," she says only half-joking.

Schultz's desk looks out on busy Halsted Street. She's seen a photo of Jane Addams sitting in the same spot, with the sunlight streaming in just as it does now.

"It's a very inspiring place to work," she says.

Dan Portincaso, head docent/facilities manager who "does a little bit of everything here," ducks his head in the door to give a tour. Portincaso, a fiction writer and history lover, considers himself "an odd hire" that turned out well for everyone concerned.

Here six years, he still thinks it's a great job for a writer — one of the more dynamic jobs at UIC, meeting everyone from third graders to members of the French parliament.

"It beats flipping burgers, that's for sure," he laughs.

His favorite interactions occur with younger visitors, since they ask the best questions. One kid asked, upon seeing the television used by museum staff for instructional purposes, "Is that the actual TV Jane Addams used to watch?"

The boy wound up learning more from the shoe-shining block carried around by kids for their daily bread and the knife-sharpening cart that belonged to the grandfather of a UIC employee than from any video presentation.

From a cabinet drawer Portincaso lifts out a brick.

"Before cobblestones, there were these," he says, inhaling the residue of soot that remains from the old neighborhood. "It smells like a railroad tie, doesn't it?"

He plans to put it on display behind some Plexiglas with holes. That way, everyone can get a whiff of the history that's still with us.