DuPage’s Heritage Gallery needs to better reflect area’s history, some say

A landmark exhibit that occupies a key hallway on the first floor of the DuPage County Government Administration Building in Wheaton is undergoing an update effort, including the potential profiling of a more diverse set of filmmakers throughout throughout the county’s history.

Known as the Heritage Gallery, the exhibit was established in 1980 in a first-floor atrium hallway that connects two parts of DuPage’s sprawling government administration building, 421 N. County Farm Road, and which located in a public part of the building. The Heritage Gallery was created to celebrate the famous natives of DuPage County, and among those recognized in the gallery are football great Harold “Red” Grange, evangelist Billy Graham, astronomer Grote Reber, singer opera Sherrill Milnes, industrialist and gambler John W. “Bet-A-Million” Gates, author Anna Landon and Tribune publisher Col. Robert R. McCormick.

A privately funded non-profit group, DuPage Heritage Gallery Inc., was at one time behind the creation and maintenance of the Heritage Gallery. However, in recent years the organization has become moribund, with some board members deceased and others in their 90s. With that group’s effective disbandment, representatives of its remaining trustees have agreed to turn over ownership and maintenance of the exhibit to the DuPage County Department of Public Works in the fall of 2020, said Dawn DeSart, member of the DuPage County Board of Directors, D-Aurora.

Now League of Women Voters member Becky Simon of Naperville is calling for major changes to the Heritage Gallery, which, while highly visible, hasn’t had an addition or update since 1991.

“It’s the gallery of (mostly) famous white men,” Simon told the Tribune. “These are all straight (sexual) white Christians, and that completely ignores some of the most amazing stories that have taken place in DuPage County. We believe there are many, many people who have been overlooked, and it is time to give them their due.

DeSart acknowledged that despite the Heritage Gallery’s relatively prominent location, she was unaware of the existence of the exhibit until the fall of 2019, when Simon approached her after a council meeting of the DuPage County to raise the issue. Since then, a small group of community leaders who want the gallery to be more diverse and inclusive, including DeSart and Simon, have come together, and these efforts culminated in the takeover of the Heritage Gallery in 2020.

DeSart said his group continues to meet and study the origins of gallery objects. Documents related to the gallery and its artifacts are housed in several locations, including the DuPage County Historical Museum in Wheaton and the Buswell Memorial Library at Wheaton College, she said. The group recently spent an afternoon at each location, studying documents and seeking to verify the provenance of all the artifacts in the exhibit.

Ultimately, DeSart said she was in favor of a gallery update. She noted that the local chapter of the National Organization for Women wrote a letter to the Wheaton Daily Journal in March 1989, asking that the gallery be more inclusive. Currently, Landon is the only woman featured in the display.

“The gallery has been stagnating since 1991, and our little group would like it to become more of a ‘destination’ place,” 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 couldn’t agree more. This gallery must include the whole beautiful mosaic of religions, colors, genders, etc. of DuPage County.

DeSart, however, acknowledged the challenges to his group’s goals. She noted that she is an ally of the LGBTQ community, including serving on the board of Naper Pride, and that she promotes the representation of that community in the exhibit.

“I would love to see this community represented in the gallery, but when speaking with members of this community it’s a challenge because many in 2022 are afraid to come out, let alone try to find historical figures from the DuPage County who were out 50 years ago, at the time of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.”

County Public Works Committee Chairwoman Mary Ozog, County Council Member D-Glen Ellyn said she also supports updating the exhibit and making it “more contemporary”.

“It would be a really nice transition between the two hallways to update it and make it more relevant to who DuPage County is today,” Ozog said. “I’m all for us doing what we can to update it. There are always budgetary constraints and we certainly want to be sensitive to various groups, but we could perhaps consider doing a rotating type of exhibition. But as for updating it, I’m all for it, so we’ll see what we can do with it.

DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, a Republican, declined to comment specifically on whether or not to expand the Heritage Gallery. In a statement, Cronin said that “if the members of the Public Works Committee come up with a specific proposal for the Heritage Gallery, I’m sure their fellow board members and I will give it careful consideration.”

Bob Goldsborough is a freelance journalist.

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