Winter 2019 Conservationist

Not So Hidden Treasures

by Jordan Countryman, Collections Committee

What do a mastodon tooth, an Edison home phonograph and a carriage bridle have in common? They all have a story to tell.

That’s why the Forest Preserve District collects, preserves, interprets and displays nearly 8,000 artifacts of natural history and human culture. These items held in public trust are as diverse as the county’s natural areas and convey fascinating stories that connect people to nature, each other and the past in DuPage.

When an artifact arrives at the District’s collection facility, employees trained in museum best practices determine how to handle the piece based on the material (porcelain, paper, fiber, etc.) To prevent the transfer of dirt and oil from hands, most artifacts are handled with cotton gloves, but some, such as certain types of paper, are not. Cotton fibers can rub against those in the paper, catching and causing tears.

Staff photograph the artifact and add the photo and a detailed description to a master digital catalog. The piece is then either stored or exhibited. Unlike the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark with aisles of towering shelves filled with forgotten treasures, the Forest Preserve District routinely rotates pieces in and out of storage for use in short-term programs and displays. This practice balances public access today with the preservation of artifacts for residents tomorrow and is part of any healthy collections management program. 

As its collection grows and evolves, the Forest Preserve District continues to review and improve its management techniques, striving to ensure it follows best practices. As with managing the land, without a long-term strategy these important pieces of DuPage history will not be available for future generations to enjoy.

In 2010, for instance, the Forest Preserve District expanded and enhanced its storage space at Mayslake Peabody Estate to create a single facility large enough to accommodate everything in its collection from fossils to farming equipment. The renovated climate-controlled area now monitors environmental conditions such as light, temperature and humidity to protect artifacts from fluctuations that can accelerate deterioration. And just last spring the District received a grant to fund two assessors, who examined its collections and will work with employee experts to recommend a long-term preservation plan.

DuPage forest preserves have centuries of stories to tell, whether about the land today or the land and the people who relied on it long ago. By preserving and presenting its artifact collection, the Forest Preserve District will be able to connect people to those stories for years to come. 

Preserving the Past


Mayslake Peabody Estate received this rare 1915 Louis Betts portrait of Francis Stuyvesant Peabody as a donation from Peabody’s descendants. Because the Forest Preserve District has few objects owned by or directly connected to the coal baron, the portrait was a valuable addition to its collection. But light and cigarette smoke from 100 years in a private home dulled original colors and obscured subtle background details. After careful restoration, though, the piece now hangs in the main entrance of Mayslake Hall.



The Collection

The Forest Preserve District’s collection of artifacts is subdivided into five categories, each managed by trained employees according to museum standards for collections care.

Kline Creek Farm
Cultural objects found on an 1890 – 1910 farm and archaeological objects from throughout the forest preserves

Mayslake Peabody Estate
Objects related to the life and work of Francis Stuyvesant Peabody, the American Gilded Age and the Progressive Era 1880 – 1922

St. James Farm
Items related to the McCormicks, the farm’s dairy operations, equestrian events from the
1980s and 90s, the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin rail line, and Erastus Gary

Natural History
Animals, plants, fungi and fossils currently native to or previously found in DuPage

Forest Preserve District History
Objects and records capturing the development of the Forest Preserve District and the history of the land