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'The best days are yet to come': Peoria Riverfront Museum's John Morris reflects on six years

John Morris
Jody Holtz
John Morris

The Peoria Riverfront Museum continues to move forward with new programming, exhibits and ideas under the leadership of museum President and CEO John Morris.

Morris recently marked his sixth year in the position and says those six years were split into two different phases: the three years before the pandemic, and the three years since.

In a new quarterly interview series with the museum, WCBU's Jody Holtz sat down with Morris to reflect on what's happened in the past six years, what the future holds, and why he coined Peoria as the 'city of gratitude'.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you look back at those six years, what are some of the highlights and things that you feel that you've accomplished within that timeframe?

Well, thanks for asking. What a great six years it has been really divided into two periods. That first three years we were getting the party started at the museum, the only multidisciplinary museum of its kind in the nation. Art, science, history, achievement, largest movie screen in Illinois state of the art world's most advanced planetarium system, and a whole lot of good people inspiring each other. We really were building, building membership, the visionary society support, and then the pandemic.

So, the second three-year period has been kind of reacting and building back into what has emerged as an even healthier, better sense of the community through digital especially. So, we're now regularly getting 25 to 30,000 digital engagements through our social media, emails we send out according to 10 different interest groups from fine art to The Center for American Decoys to Bronzeville to Harlem. So, we have 1000s of digital interactions on top of now, of course, being fully reopened and having at least 20 different exhibitions and programs going on, on any given day that you're able to see at the museum. So, it's been a joy, six years of absolute joy.

Yeah, and going off of that, how have you seen in person admission sort of rebound after the pandemic?

We are on target to get we think next year, we'll get back to pre-pandemic 180,000 (in-person) visitor experiences a year but as I mentioned earlier, at 30,000 digital engagements, likes, shares, clicks, comments, per week, we're on target for one more than 1.5 million if we keep going on that pace of digital engagement. So, you might visit the exhibition once or twice that we have up in the galleries or you might see a planetarium show, but you can follow Renae Kerrigan, our planetarium director giving you updates weekly from email and daily from social media. So, it's amazing to see that we are not a building. We are not the collections or the exhibitions. We are people. The museum, we believe is defined as people, people inspiring each other and being inspired by each other, and the Peoria Riverfront Museum is growing and growing in that regard.

I want to talk now a little bit about the ESI, which is known as Every Student Initiative. That's something that has shown large growth within these past six years. Talk to me more about how that program has evolved specifically and where you see it heading in the future.

The most important program we do, the Every Student Initiative aspires to get every student from every grade level in the museum building every year throughout their whole careers. But more than that, now we give family passes for free for them to bring families back. So, we have hundreds of supporters led by the Barton Family Foundation, who got the whole thing kicked off. We now have 45 sponsored schools where all K-8 (students) are coming into the museum on a curriculum related basis and getting passes to bring their families back in. We've also thrown in teacher free memberships for educators so they can get a one plus one free membership if they're associated with one of those 45 sponsored schools. This year we will have in total, sponsored and paid schools, 17,000 students come to the Peoria Riverfront Museum. That's a lot of inspiration.

How does the museum determine which exhibits to bring and how much work is it to coordinate that? And what are some considerations that you and your team are making during that process?

We have a process for everything we call it MURO. We look does it match our mission? Our mission really is building confidence and sparking learning. And if we do those two things, the end result of every single thing we do at the museum is to unleash the full talent and genius of every individual. Is it unique? We only do things that are first, best or only in Peoria. We will not do anything that anyone else in the entire country has done. So, people say, you're bringing BODY WORLDS RX (the most popular traveling science exhibition of all time). So how is that unique? How does it meet your formula? Well, for the first time ever, we have partnered a self-curated exhibition, our first of its kind, on the human heart that will be alongside BODY WORLDS.

We look for 'R' which is what are the resources? Does an exhibition proposal to us, and I get two to three of them (proposals) per week, and I know our chief curator Bill Conger does as well. But if they have no resources, there's no backing, there's no grant, there's no sponsorship, there's no visionary society, donors that will follow and so forth, it becomes impossible for us. We are a nonprofit, but we're a nonprofit business. $5 million a year it takes to run it and 80% of that money comes from donations and support.

Then we look for the outcomes. What are we really trying to achieve? How many people are coming in? What is the test we're going to make in order to measure whether it has worked or not? So, when we apply MURO to our exhibitions they make infinite sense.

You mentioned a little bit about how you guys determine if these exhibits are successful, and how do you determine that? Once an exhibit is done, what do you look back on? How do you measure success?

We measure it in four ways. Did the budget work out? We budgeted for this amount; did it bring in that amount? And as I mentioned earlier, 80% of what it brings in is usually philanthropy. So secondly, we look at philanthropy more closely. Did it engage philanthropy? We don't want to do anything that doesn't engage philanthropy. If we're doing something that sells enough tickets to pay for itself, we're in the wrong business. A for-profit can handle that. We're trying to engage philanthropy to do something that is worth even more than you pay for it.

So thirdly, we look at engagement. Very importantly, how many people did we set out to bring in? How many emails did we collect? And finally, we do something called NPS (Net Promoter Score). We measure whether people on a scale of zero to ten liked it. If they're nine, or ten, that's where we want them to be. So those are the four outcomes, budget, philanthropy, engagement and NPS.

The Peoria Falcon, which is a copper plate that was worn by a Native American dancer in the Illinois River Valley more than 1000 years ago, is an important piece of Peoria history that the museum has in its possession. What's the current status of the Falcon? I've heard that it's perhaps being restored. Can you provide an update on that?

It's under restoration. It's owned by the Smithsonian Institution; the great explorer John Wesley Powell conveyed it to them more than 100 years ago. It was found here in the Illinois River Valley, and it's probably the single most valuable artifact connected to the indigenous populations that date 10,000 years ago, but this is estimated to be about 1000 years old. We're really excited to be working with the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma. They are working with us on this artifact. Chief Craig Harper is an amazing leader for the tribe. We take that relationship very seriously and in conjunction with the Smithsonian.

There was some initial interest in this Falcon as a symbol for our community, symbol of pride in the continuum of the fact that human beings have been seeking out this Illinois River Valley for millennia. And we stand on the shoulders of giants, not only of the French explorers, as the oldest continuously settled French community in the Midwest, but we stand on the shoulders of millennia of human beings who have come before us. And so, the Falcon becomes a symbol of just tremendous importance. We hope to see it come back this Fall. We are still working closely with the Smithsonian, and it is under restoration right now.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is home to the giant screen theater, the largest screen in Illinois, and I've noticed that the often the theater is not in operation during the weekdays with most films being shown on the weekends. So, do you think that the giant screen theater is being utilized to its full potential? And is there enough community interest to continue to support that?

The answer is no. We need a lot more films. But we now (have) 1,000 film showings a year. We've launched with the partnership and advice of Marc Eliot, a great author and scholar of film, he comes in three to four times a year now and curates a cycle of films based on various topics. We've got comedies coming up. There's purported other screens being built in Illinois that want to be largest. They're not yet. We're the largest right now and got some very big plans for the giant screen theater coming up.

Let me mention one thing called community picks. Community picks is an idea particularly for Thursday night that anybody in the community who is a member of the museum or associated with the museum or associated with some kind of community, organization or business, they can come to us, and they can choose a film and we'll allow them to introduce it, and we give them tickets, popcorn, and so forth for a certain number of folks, and they can buy some more at a discounted rate, and then we open the movie up to the public. The Chancellor of Methodist College, Dr. Laurie Shanderson, chose a horror film that she likes and brought in a psychologist from Methodist College to do a little pre and post commentary on it. If anybody's interested, they can contact the museum.

You said that you wanted to get more films in the theater. What are the limitations there? What does it take to bring a film in and show it at this theater?

Well, the first few years of the giant screen theater, there was this idea that we would show the latest "Avengers", or the latest sci-fi film. The problem with trying to be a commercial theater in that regard is all of the commercial distributors require what's called a clean screen. They will not allow us to show any of the educational films, classic films, the documentaries, the art films, while that film is being shown. So, it's hard for me to justify all this philanthropic support for the museum and then essentially showing the same film that's in 14 other screens from Bloomington to Pekin to Grand Prairie.

You are a proud Peoria yourself, and last year at the Peoria Chamber (Thanksgiving) luncheon as the keynote speaker, you gave a speech focused on Peoria as the city of gratitude. Your message focused on community and promoting Peoria as a positive place to live, work, learn and play. Tell me more about why you believe in this community so much.

Well, I'm a native son of Peoria, a proud graduate of Richwoods High School, but I chose to move back to Peoria because this is my home. I've been blessed to travel all over the country, and I can tell you this. We don't have everything. We don't have an NFL team. But we have so much here that I think people do not realize. One of the most historic communities in the United States. So much innovation, so much culture, so much arts, one of the great per capita engineering cities of the country. We sit amidst the richest farm ground in the world. I mean, it's not just like a tagline, chemically speaking, we sit on the most productive and richest farm ground in the world.

We have fascinating history, as I mentioned earlier with Indigenous People. Abraham Lincoln gave his first anti-slavery speech, the Peoria speech, gave it here. Richard Pryor, the pioneering comedian who put race on the table through humor in a way that nobody else had ever done, through very difficult circumstances, but he was a proud Peorian. The promise of equal opportunity for women and men in the workplace, the modern movement toward that started with a woman named Betty Friedan, (she) came out of Peoria. The list goes on.

The reason I called it the city of gratitude, and now it's up to everybody else if they want to use that slogan or not, I think that's who we really are. So, I just put words to something that I've just been observing. We're so grateful. And you know how I can tell? We're one of the most generous communities where people are generous to the museum, they're generous to the health care, the Children's Hospital, the St. Jude. They're generous to the United Way. There's generosity all over the place. And that is a sign of gratitude. People who are grateful are generous people. And so, I think we're a place where there's a lot to be grateful for, and I think pound for pound, I think we may be the most grateful city in America. So why not call us what we are already?

What do you hope talking about the community in this way will ultimately accomplish?

Well, it's the same thing that the museum is trying to accomplish. Unleash the full talent and genius of every individual. I believe the United States of America, the promise of this country, with all of its bumps and bruises and flaws, (is) the greatest country in the history of the world, because in our individual liberty here is the promise of opportunity. Opportunity to pursue one's dreams, to use one's talents, to be the best, to start a movement to change things in a way that you want, or to start a movement to hold on to things that you believe need to be held on to.

So, Peoria is a quintessential American community, like every other community here, made up of immigrants who've come across the generations, the beneficiary of the Harlem or Black Renaissance is called the Great Migration. Peoria is a beneficiary of that migration. Preston Jackson's great Bronzeville to Harlem exhibition tells the story, how much art and industry and genius came out of that movement. Peoria is right there. Peoria was on the Underground Railroad.

And now we see the medical community and healthcare advances standing on the shoulders of the invention of the mass production of Penicillin. How much bigger does it get than saving 10s of millions of lives through the mass production of Penicillin? And we did it! We did that here. So, you look backwards at Peoria, and look at all that's happened, and here's the coolest part. The best days are yet to come. They really are. Bradley University is here and Eureka College and our great community college and our public schools and our private schools and our sense of values and ethics and the number of religious congregations and just all of the things that make up this fabric of the community. We're really in a strong position for me not to just sound like the promotional propaganda guy, but to legitimately be able to say the best days of the Peoria region are right ahead. They're coming.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.