A Teen Made Museum: Chicago Youth Interpret Teen Cultures

Jessica Schapiro, 17, is a member of the Chicago Teen Museum (CTM)’s Teen Council, Writer Abe Louise Young interviewed Jessica about the team’s goals and strategies for creating a museum to showcase teen cultures.

The museum we are working on creating is going to be for, by, and about teens. We want youth who come to this museum to feel that they’re not alone. We’re diverse and we want to know about each other. But it’s also for adults, grandparents, tweens. Our primary audience is teenagers, but we want an audience of everyone. There’s so much to learn about.

The teens who participated in Teen Made Museum: Advanced Exhibit Design, our summer program in partnership with the After School Matters, met in the studio at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. It was a makeshift home for us.

The mission statement is: Founded in 2006, the Chicago Teen Museum (CTM) is the first museum, dedicated entirely to the preservation of teen cultures by connecting youth expression to the museum profession.

We spent a lot of time making art, and then we put an exhibit titled “Teen Space” together. That led to the forming of the Teen Council for the Chicago Teen Museum. There is no real physical place for the museum yet, it’s not a bricks-and-mortar museum yet, but that is our goal. The Council met twice a week. We really dig in to abstract concepts. We put together every idea that this museum will be based on. We have an Exhibit Team, Community Team, and a Programming Team.

All the board members get compensation for all of the meetings, paid as a stipend. It was good to know that our ideas were valuable and that we could do something like this together. Especially after school—if you made a bad grade or something—it’s great to come to an organization where your ideas are what matters and no one is telling you that you’re wrong is really helpful.

In determining the conceptual focus of the museum, we filled sheet after sheet of butcher paper up with things that we wanted to explore. A lot of the ideas are very personal, not things that you’re going to find in a textbook or a newspaper. And we found that we wanted to explore them through personal stories, narratives, and anecdotes, rather than facts and anecdotes like you would find in a science museum.

We went out and talked to a lot of teens, and they said violence in the Chicago area was a major issue that they wanted to explore. There’s a lot of gang violence, unfortunately, and there have been gangs in the city since before any of us were born. It’s a huge part of many teens’ lives. It has leaked into the public school system in some cases. There’s no limit to how much of the violence we want to explore.

Other issues we found important are school, peer pressure, and stress on teenagers, growing up, working, college, family life, love, friendship, how we mature over time. We want to see how these issues affect teens, and particularly how teens feelabout them.
Teenagers are generally more whimsical, energetic, and hopeful, than the adult population in the workforce. (Obviously there are exceptions to that rule.) Teens are, oddly, cooler than adults. I don’t mean anything disrespectful, but it’s true. We are so few years away from being adults, but we couldn’t do adulthood now! So we offer that not knowing, not being afraid aspect, the courage that all teens have, to keep going forward.

Teen culture is what interests teens, and what teens are doing. It’s hard to put boundaries around what teen culture is—it’s what interests and motivates teens, and its constantly changing, moving, and far-reaching. Energetic, kind of underground, urban, bourgeois, there’s so many different subgroups within these labels. I know plenty of teens that are down to go with the opera with their grandparents. So teen culture defies an easy explanation. It’s just what’s happening at this moment that teens are into.

After being on the Chicago Teen Museum team, I feel a lot less formal than I used to be. I used to be set on becoming an investment banker. Although I still have my eye on that career, I am considering a lot more options than I was before. It’s completely changed my mindset. I don’t want to be stuck as a pencil-pusher my whole life.

Since working on this project, I’m a lot more comfortable with relating to other teenagers and accepting our differences. I had a zero-tolerance policy before for people my age who weren’t willing to put 110% into everything. Now I know it’s okay to take it easy sometimes, listen to others, have fun hanging out with friends and goofing off while doing something constructive. It’s also easier for me to communicate to adults.

The Chicago Teen Museum is a wake-up call that we can contribute, and create something, and put it out there, make a difference to society in the way that people often think teenagers can’t. Even if it doesn’t exist yet, isn’t tangible yet…it’s in process, and the energy that it provides is life-changing. We don’t have to wait to see if it’s a success in the future. It already is a success.

See also: “Creating, Teaching, Moving: A Teen Council Project” about the Chicago Teen Museum (Power point)


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator