City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More
Dunn Museum Backstage. (Photo: Lori Compas)

Featured Article

Art & History: The Dunn Museum is Lake County's Cultural Resource

Natural and Cultural History is Brought to Life Through a Balance of Interactive Exhibitions, Authentic Artifacts, Reproductions, and Audiovisual Displays.

Article by Kim Mikus

Photography by John Weinstein & Lori Compas

Originally published in SW Lake Lifestyle

The Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville is named in honor of Lake County’s first official historian, Bess Bower Dunn (1877–1959). Her determination to preserve the early history of Lake County resulted in a significant and lasting contribution––and one of the best cultural offerings in the Chicago area. The Lake County Forest Preserves, which operates the museum, is continuing her mission and sharing her innovative spirit with visitors of all ages.

“Bess did more to preserve and protect the county’s history than any other individual,” said Andrew Osborne, superintendent of educational facilities for the Lake County Forest Preserves. “Bess was passionate about documenting the county’s heritage at the turn of the century and personally acquired some of the items that are now part of our collections.” Bess was ambitious, and a woman of firsts. She was the first woman in motion pictures, the first assistant probate clerk for Lake County, and one of the county’s earliest genealogists.

The Dunn Museum continues to care for the heritage of the county through its distinguished historic collections, and innovative special exhibitions inspired by art, history and popular culture in gallery settings. Museum educators, curators and historians provide the public with cultural context through public and school programs.

Opened in 1976 as the Lake County Discovery Museum in a converted farm building at Lakewood Forest Preserve in Wauconda, in 2018 the museum moved to its current location at 1899 W. Winchester Road in Libertyville.  

The central Lake County location provides more than twice the gallery space for exhibitions about Lake County’s past than its previous site. It also offers dedicated teaching areas and a public research center, as well as convenient access for all visitors.

The nationally accredited Dunn Museum—a distinction held by only 3% of American museums—cares for a treasure trove of history about our region. Other area-accredited museums include the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science & Industry.

Lake County’s natural and cultural history is brought to life through a balance of interactive exhibitions, authentic artifacts, reproductions and audiovisual displays.

Visitors are invited to take a chronological walk through Lake County’s past from prehistoric times to the present. Each gallery includes a touch screen that directs visitors to different forest preserves to see firsthand where history took place. (Currently these screens are disabled due to COVID-19 protocols.)

Galleries also include animations narrated by Bill Kurtis, Chicago’s legendary television journalist, that illustrate stories of Lake County. A major attraction of the Dunn Museum is a life-sized Dryptosaurus dinosaur. She welcomes visitors from her position at the entrance. No other institution in the world has one like it. This replica is both a work of art and a contribution to science. 

“What is unique about the Dunn Museum is our ability to tell the inspiring stories of Lake County’s heritage and then direct visitors to the exact land where history happened, such as the Adlai E. Stevenson Historic Home in Mettawa,” said Angelo Kyle, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves. “We like to consider ourselves a 31,000-acre museum because not only do we care for historic artifacts that embody Lake County stories, but we also care for the land where those stories occurred.”

Permanent exhibitions include Prehistoric Lake County; The First People; An American Frontier; Civil War; Innovations and Preservation; and the Woodland Theater. Special exhibitions offered at the Dunn Museum are sometimes national touring exhibitions and sometimes curated by Dunn Museum staff, which is the case with the current exhibition, "Breaking Barriers: Women in the Military." 

"This allows us a chance to really delve into what makes Lake County and its residents so special," said Director of Education Nan Buckardt. The Dunn Museum has a large collection of objects and archival materials that provide a rich resource for Lake County history. However, only a small percentage of the collection can be on display at one time. "When Dunn Museum staff members curate an exhibition it enables us to show more of the collection and connect visitors to our collective history," Buckardt said. 

The work of renowned comic book artist Alex Ross was a popular exhibit last year featuring Ross’ portraits of Marvel Comics’ heroes and villains, sculptures and childhood pieces.


In the exhibit galleries, objects from the collections are rotated on and off display to share new stories and care for the collection, said Diana Dretske, curator at the Dunn Museum. The collections comprise nearly 20,000 artifacts and 1,000 linear feet of archival materials housed in a modern, environmentally controlled care and storage facility. "The storage facility assists us in the preservation of the collections the Dunn Museum holds in the public trust," Dretske said.

For example, an impressive hand-carved wooden model of a cathedral in the collections embodies the story of Charles Warner's immigration in 1908 to Mundelein from Prussia. Warner was just 13, and taught himself to read and write English. After his retirement as a carpenter for American Steel and Wire in North Chicago, he took up woodworking as a hobby. In 1955, he began carving wooden cathedrals by hand with a jackknife and jigsaw, using templates of his own design.

The cathedrals he created were made in remembrance of his childhood in Prussia, and to teach his children their heritage. His daughter donated her father's folk-art cathedrals to the Dunn Museum in 1982.

“When someone offers to donate an item to our collections, it goes through a thoughtful review process before a decision is made,” said Dretske. Curators and other museum staff review the item to gauge how well it represents the people, places and events of Lake County and if it enhances the museum’s ability to tell the county’s history.


The coronavirus pandemic has forced the Dunn Museum to temporarily close, prompting staff to develop innovative methods to continue sharing stories and exhibitions with the public. “We are developing ways to stay connected and keep people engaged in history education,” Buckardt said. An array of virtual programs about the history of Lake County are being offered, and history research services continue to be provided via email.

Museum staff is also working to add a dedicated YouTube channel to its mix of strategies to engage an audience they have been unable to consistently serve due to COVID-19 closures. “The channel, called DunnTV, will serve as an important tool for regular content delivery. It has the capacity to expand our audience significantly beyond our capacity for on-site visitation,” Buckardt said.

The channel will feature informative videos about the museum’s collections, exhibitions, educational programming, and behind-the-scenes operations. The filming equipment for DunnTV was purchased through a grant made possible by the Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves.

In February, the Dunn Museum will introduce an entirely virtual exhibition created in partnership with the College of Lake County. “The exhibit profiles African American voices of Lake County,” Buckardt said. “It explores multigenerational stories through graphic design, poetry, writing, art and video interviews done by students from CLC’s Black Student Union.”

Virtual visitors will be able to experience the exhibit gallery using an interactive StoryMap, a web application that combines interactive and static displays with rich multimedia.

“We are excited to launch this new virtual exhibit,” Buckardt said. “We are proud of the innovative tools and creative ideas we’ve implemented to expand our reach and visitor base despite COVID-19 restrictions. We plan to integrate many of these new innovations into our standard operations even after we are able to reopen the Dunn Museum to walk-in visitors once again.”

Kim Mikus is a Communications Specialist with the Lake County Forest Preserves. To comply with COVID-19 mitigations, the Dunn Museum was closed at the time this story was prepared. Please visit to check the current open/closed status, and to find virtual programs and exhibition information.

  • Dunn Museum Backstage. (Photo: Lori Compas)
  • Dunn Museum namesake Bess Bower Dunn in 1896.
  • Dunn Museum lobby entrance.
  • First People Exhibit.
  • Dunn dino.
  • Lake County Lotus Boat.
  • Charles Warner's handcarved model of Prussian cathedral.