Calumet Voices, National Stories exhibit. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Field Museum

As visitors enter the Calumet Voices, National Stories exhibit at the Field Museum, they encounter a large banner: “Soot on the windows meant food on the table.” Visitors are quickly presented with examples of the Calumet region’s diverse ecosystem: a set of red-headed woodpeckers, whose soot-covered feathers were a measure of air quality; a Potawatomi beaded rattle exquisitely crafted around a Calumet Baking Powder can; a detailed photograph of Thismia americana, a plant specimen only found in the Calumet region (and too rare to put on display); a massive steel plate embossed with the names of “Rosie the Riveter” women steelworkers during WWII.

Calumet Voices, National Stories, a multi-site exhibition series, first opened in Pullman in 2019, before traveling to Gary and Valparaiso, Indiana. In November of last year, it opened at the Field Museum—and now, for just a few more months, it will showcase elements from all these stops. The show is part of an ongoing effort from museums, libraries, and history centers to highlight the significance of the Calumet region in order to have the area recognized as a National Heritage Area.

A national heritage area is a geographic region that has been recognized and designated by the federal government for its cultural, natural, or historic significance. Heritage areas are stewarded by organizations that receive up to $1 million in annual federal funding to create and share educational resources; curate opportunities for visitors (and locals) to learn about the region’s history, traditions, and natural environment; and improve air, water, and quality of life through restoration and amenity projects. 

Congress designated the Illinois and Michigan Canal as the first National Heritage Area in 1984, and has since created more than sixty heritage areas, including last year’s Bronzeville-Black Metropolis Heritage Area.

You may have explored the Calumet Region while traveling through parts of the South Side, such as Hegewisch, South Chicago, South Deering, and East Side, or in other towns across Illinois and Indiana, including Gary, Hammond, Highland, Griffith, Valparaiso, and others. 

Eastern deciduous forests, boreal remnants, and tall grasslands are native to the Calumet Region, which has made it one of the most biodiverse places in the country, though industrial development has harmed these environments. It was also home to the largest steel-producing efforts in the world during much of the 20th century, and remains a site for steel production. 

Calumet Voices, National Stories began as an ember fanned by the efforts of the Calumet Curators, a joint collaboration between the Field Museum and the Calumet Heritage Partnership, a network of local heritage organizations. 

The creation of such a traveling exhibit—with unique content at each location—is just the beginning of an ongoing effort to support the case for the Calumet Region as a heritage area.

“The Calumet Curators see the exhibition as a way to showcase the local [but] nationally significant heritage embedded in their collections and archives,” said Madeleine Tudor, a senior environmental social scientist at the Field Museum.

Following a feasibility study, “the Field Museum took the lead on exploring the creation of a partnership with many of the museums identified through the feasibility study process… as a way of bringing together local organizations in a regional context with national significance,” Tudor said. “This is what heritage areas do. An exhibition project is a logical extension of that, and the [Calumet] Curators were very excited to participate.” 

The designation of a heritage area is no easy feat, and involves a formal process initiated by community organizations or even government representatives, aiming both to protect and manage the area’s resources, and to promote sustainable tourism and community development. 

The Calumet Curators are a collective of representatives from more than fifteen local cultural organizations, including the Northwest Indiana Steel Heritage Project, Blue Island Historical Society, and Gary Public Library and Cultural Center. Together, they work to showcase the cultural, natural, and industrial heritage of the Calumet Region through exhibitions and programming in museums, galleries, and local history centers, as well as by offering guidance on uncovering local gems. 

“Working with the Calumet Curators to develop the Calumet Voices, National Stories exhibition series has been a dream come true; the Calumet region is so complex, and the exhibit medium is perfect for showcasing particular issues through different perspectives at both personal and universal scales,” said Tudor. 

“For someone who has no acquaintance with the Calumet region at all, if you visit, take your time, and go through the exhibit. You will leave with a story of your own. There are a lot of great things and stories that people don’t hear outside of the region, or outside of the narratives that make the news. Across the spectrum of races and economic conditions, it’s an incredible cross-section of what this area is and where it’s going,” said Kevin Brown, vice president of the Calumet Heritage Area.

The exhibit that now stands at the Field Museum is a culmination of pieces from each “stop”. Pieces from previous shows highlight and depict milestones in labor and civil rights activism, the fight for environmental justice, and artistic works that interpret the region’s beauty alongside its struggles. Share YOUR Calumet Voice, an interactive element present throughout the exhibition series, asks visitors to share a story or memory associated with a particular place in the Calumet region. 

“Traveling all the way from Mexico to spend one Summer working at a Girl Scout Summer camp! I loved Valpo, it’s chill and a very picturesque town,” shared Lily, an exhibit visitor. Responses like Lily’s become part of the exhibition to be encountered by future visitors.

Blue Island mural by leaders in the Mexican Art Movement. Credit: Photo by Matthew Kaplan

The traveling exhibit helps broaden the usual audience for such exhibits, making these stories more accessible to residents, and even organizations that might find partnerships with larger entities like the Field Museum hard to come by. 

“The Field Museum does not feel accessible to everyone. Even conceptually, being a big neoclassical building on a hill, it doesn’t always feel like it belongs to everyone that may come from a marginalized community,” said Mario Longini, an environmental anthropologist at the Field Museum. “Then there’s significant travel for some, and varying pricing for others. So for certain groups of people, there are barriers to having these experiences in their communities. But this exhibit is our way of signaling to the community that this is here, this is yours. This is your story. Here it is at your library. And here it is at the historical society in your neighborhood.” 

Aside from these collaborations with the Calumet Curators and other institutions, Calumet Voices, National Stories also wouldn’t have been possible without intentional partnerships with Indigenous community representatives. “The typical way of telling the history of immigration, self-determination, expansion, and industrialization of America does not really include Native American perspectives; most of us haven’t even been introduced to first-person Native perspectives on American history,” Longini said. “That’s why it was crucial for us to reach out to [some of] the original residents of the region, the Miami and the Potawatomi peoples, and invite them to share some of what they wanted visitors to know: their current work on wild rice reintroduction, regional names in their own languages, and other art and video elements that you can see at the Field Museum.” 

The first exhibition opened in June 2019 at the Historic Pullman Foundation and National Park Service Visitor Information Center (now the Historic Pullman Foundation Exhibit Hall). Before its incorporation into Chicago, Pullman was one of the formative tissues of the Calumet Region. Now a National Historic Landmark, it was critical to national railroad car manufacturing, and prompted shifts in labor rights and unionism through the 1919 Steel Strike and 1894 Pullman Strike. It was also an early stomping ground for African-American porters. The exhibition was open to the public in Pullman for about six months before moving to Gary, the show’s second “stop.” 

But “just as we were getting ready to launch the exhibit at Gary, for that second stop, the pandemic hit and pushed everything back for a few years,” said Brown. The Gary exhibit, titled Calumet: The Land of Opportunity, would eventually open on January 30, 2021 through April 26, 2022 at the downtown Gary Library; a third exhibit, A Calumet Tapestry: Artistic Views of the Region, would launch on May 19 through October 2, 2022 at the Porter County Museum, in Valparaiso. A final fourth exhibit, Journey through Calumet, went on display at the Field Museum on November 11, 2022.

For nearly four years, Calumet Voices, National Stories has documented the history (and present) of the Calumet Region in accessible spaces for all to see and enjoy. Later this fall, the exhibition is set to come to a close—but the Calumet Curators and other groups plan to convene to discuss future programs, and intend to continue advocating for a heritage area. Visitors interested in exploring the exhibit can visit through October

The Calumet Heritage Partnership also invites you to:

Share your Calumet story and read others here

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NaBeela Washington is an Alabama-raised poet, editor, and budding art collector. Learn more at

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