NORTH LAWNDALE — Until a few years ago, the Spaulding Memorial Garden at 16th Street and Spaulding Avenue was just a big vacant lot.
Now, a new project at the garden will continue to rejuvenate the lot by building a community museum out of an 8-by-20-foot shipping container.
The team behind the miniature museum wants the project to help activate open space in the neighborhood by bringing more community-focused amenities to the garden.
The project is spearheaded by Jonathan Kelley, a graduate student in museum and exhibition studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
His collaborators include school garden nonprofit Gardeneers, the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated and the UIC School of Art and Art History, where Kelley taught a class called “Building A Community Museum In North Lawndale,” from which the project emerged.
The idea to use a shipping container as a mini museum was inspired by Boxville, a Bronzeville pop-up street food market and shopping mall housed entirely in shipping containers. Kelley and his collaborators decided to follow the Boxville model to create their museum since it made building a museum much more feasible financially, with the added benefit of the space being easy to transport in a pinch.
They plan for the museum to have rotating exhibits chosen with input from neighbors of the garden. The first exhibit opens Aug. 24 and will be designed by local high schoolers working with Gardeneers through the After School Matters program.
The first exhibit, “A Safe Place,” will be an interactive exploration of the feeling of safety in young people in Lawndale.
“It’s going to be about issues of safety, how to increase safety in the neighborhood, what makes people feel safe. They’re going to have items that they’re loaning to the exhibit, and they’re writing about why those items make them feel safe,” Kelley said.
The garden will host “A Safe Place” for several months, and then a new pop-up exhibit will take its place. The process to determine the next exhibit in the mini museum will be community-driven, Kelley said, incorporating feedback from neighbors and local artists. Possibilities for future pop-ups include exhibits featuring local history, art, or science, depending on what residents want to see.
Kelley also plans to develop the area around the shipping container so that the garden can have the amenities to host social gatherings for nearby residents.
“We also we want to build out some of the spaces around the container to make them more conducive to community events, whether they be speaking events or barbecues, or what have you,” he said.
The team working to bring the museum to the memorial garden is raising funds to pay for the shipping container, the exhibit materials and the construction to make the container suitable for a museum and event area. They have so far raised more than $1,000 toward their $5,000 goal.
They hope the project will provide more avenues for neighbors of the garden to use the public land. By activating the garden, other amenities might become more available in the neighborhood, Kelley said.
“This will help provide a spark for other stores, locally owned businesses, local artisans and that sort of thing to feel like this street gets good traffic,” he said.
The garden is especially important to young people as a place in the area for them to meet up, spend time and play together. Neighborhood kids living within a couple blocks of the garden periodically stop by to help out with watering the plants. They say they are excited to see what the latest addition will be like.
“We get to pick stuff and we get to plant and just stick it in the ground so the plants can grow big. And just hang out with friends of the garden,” said Tyree, who doesn’t know much about what the exhibit will be but is happy there will be a new way to experience his local stomping grounds.
“I like to help them with all their stuff and help them water the plants,” said Daveon who lives a short walk from the garden. “That’s why I keep coming here to check if they here so I can help them.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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