The Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, Illinois, will be closing by the end of this year. For two decades, the museum has told the stories of the flight pioneer Octave Chanute, Chanute Field/Chanute Air Force Base, and Illinois aviation. The museum is registered with the state of Illinois as a nonprofit and is a tax-exempt organization. According to the museum board president, Nancy Kobel, the cost of operating the museum is just too high. The Village of Rantoul has covered the museum’s utilities and building maintenance costs and kept the museum’s rent low. However, the village can no longer afford to cover those costs, and the museum cannot afford to pick up the extra expense. Utilities alone would cost the museum $30,000 per month. The museum facility, an airplane hangar built in 1940, is extremely energy inefficient; it has poor HVAC control and widespread roof leaks.
The Chanute Air Force Base opened in 1917 as Chanute Field, but it was closed in 1993 by the Department of Defense as a measure to reduce defense spending. During its seventy-six years of operation, 1.5 million troops were trained there. The museum opened on the grounds of the former base in 1994. Both the base and the museum were named for Octave Chanute, civil engineer and aviation pioneer. He was an early writer and experimenter in manned flight and corresponded with many other aviation innovators, including the Wright brothers. The museum’s exhibits have included The 99th Pursuit Squadron at Chanute Field—The First Active Unit of the Tuskegee Airmen; Korea: The Forgotten War; POW/MIA: You Are Not Forgotten; and History of Chanute Air Force Base. More than forty aircraft and missiles are exhibited at the museum.
Mark Hanson, the museum’s curator, has received calls from people asking what will happen to the collection objects. The museum is compiling an inventory of the collections and is in contact with other tax-exempt and governmental museums to find appropriate repositories where the artifacts can be cared for and available for the public to enjoy. Once the legal title to artifacts is transferred to the tax-exempt organization, the objects are placed in the public trust. It is considered poor museum practice to return them to the former owners because it removes them from the public sector. As the American Association for State and Local History notes in “When a History Museum Closes: Ethics Position Paper 2,” history museums hold collections on behalf of their communities and must ensure that the collections remain in the public domain.
The Chanute Air Museum will remain open to the public in the coming months, and it will continue to schedule tours. The museum will be in touch with the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office, and the Internal Revenue Service to ascertain that it is following legal requirements. In addition to the AASLH position paper, there are other publications that can help museums through this difficult process, such as Publication 4779 from the IRS and “Winding Down: A Risk Management Checklist,” from the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. These articles offer advice about the legal steps required in dissolving a museum and also address ethical and practical issues involved in the process.
The Chanute Air Museum is located in Grissom Hall, 1011 Pacesetter Dr., Rantoul. More information is available at 217-893-1613 or on the museum’s website, www.aeromuseum.org.