PEORIA — There's something about ducks.

From "Make Way For Ducklings," the classic Robert McCloskey tale about a family of ducks relocating in downtown Boston, to cartoons with Donald and Daffy.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum opened an exhibit on Saturday that takes advantage of our fascination with things that go quack with more than 200 duck decoys gathered from collections all over the country. The museum also opened a second exhibit Saturday of medical inventions that have changed the world. 

The display of duck decoys represents the most valuable collection of art since the museum’s predecessor, Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, exhibited "The Passion of Rodin," said museum CEO John Morris.

These are decoys that have never touched water but are serious works of art that, in some cases, carry six-figure price tags, said Zac Zetterberg, the museum's assistant curator of art.

But why the fascination with duck decoys, you might ask? One has to understand that, along with being cute, ducks are also good to eat. We've gotten away from duck dinners in this country, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s, U.S. restaurants featured them prominently, said Zetterberg. "You might have found 10 different species of duck on a Chicago restaurant menu of the time."

As a result, duck hunters were in demand to deliver these tasty birds. All of which led to decoys, wooden ducks used to attract real ducks. As time went on, decoys were refined and a new category in wildlife artistry was born.

Decoys on display come from the museum's permanent collection and key works from the Tom Figge Collection, Joe and Donna Tonelli, Ted and Judy Harmon of Decoys Unlimited Inc., Ward Museum, Shelburne Museum and the Illinois State Museum.

The exhibit shows off decoys that date back 2,000 years. Made by Native Americans who were hunting ducks long before Columbus arrived, these ancient decoys were unearthed in Nevada, said Zetterberg.

Your duck education starts at the museum by learning that the United States has four major flyways, migration routes taken by various species of ducks from their nesting grounds in Canada. The Riverfront Museum's decoys principally represent the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.

The Mississippi flyway runs right through Illinois as visitors to the Emiquon Nature Preserve, just south of Peoria, can attest. As a result, Illinois artists have had plenty of birds to use as models, producing a huge number of decoys, Zetterberg said.

Several of the artists whose work is on display have central Illinois roots. Charles Perdew hailed from Henry, a self-styled river rat whose decoys are nationally famous. The exhibit features Perdew's sleepy-eyed mallard hen and mallard drake.

Duck calls are also part of the exhibit and, no, kids, you won't be able to try them out. Perdew's handcrafted duck calls that once sold for $1 apiece in catalogs now get auctioned for thousands of dollars each.

Charles Schoenheider Sr., a prominent decoy artist from Peoria who died in 1944, also has several works on display: a merganser drake and hen as well as a standing goose.

You might not know names like Lee Dudley or Elmer Crowell but if there was a decoy hall of fame, they would be in there.

Hailing from Virginia, Dudley is famous (in duck circles) for the "Dudley Ruddy," his vintage decoy of a ruddy duck that is often recognized as the most important decoy in the collection of Vermont's Shelburne Museum, considered to have one of the greatest collections of decoys in the country.

Dudley's work shows the effects of time with much of the original paint worn off since it was found in a dilapidated boathouse in the 1920s, said Zetterberg. But that only adds to its value since older decoys that have been repainted are worth less than untouched originals, he said.

Crowell's trio of shore birds common to Cape Cod, where the artist did his work, drew a respectful nod from Zetterberg. "This is considered one of the finest — and most valuable — examples of carving in this exhibit," he said.

Medical inventions exhibit

In addition to decoys, the museum also unveils a very different exhibit. "We're listing it as 10 medical inventions that changed the world, but we'll have about 100 objects on display to tell the story," said curator Bill Conger.

Partnering with local and national medical organizations and schools, the museum identifies major medical technologies with a wide variety of artifacts.

Ella Fitzgerald’s iconic glasses are on loan from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, while the Mayo Clinic delivered its first heart-lung machine. There are medical antiquities from colonial Williamsburg, 3D printed organs, as well as displays for inventions made in Peoria such as the mass production of penicillin at the Ag Lab during World War II and the white cane for the blind that became a national standard after first being used on Downtown streets in the 1930s.

The exhibit aims to take advantage of the innovative spirit now on display in the community exemplified by the Jump Trading Simulation Center, said Conger. "We hope that viewing breakthroughs of the past will ignite an interest and inspire the young to develop new concepts and technology," he said.

Inside the exhibition, museum visitors will also have the opportunity to vote for their choice of the top medical invention and view live results as the top 10 are tabulated over the course of the exhibition, said Conger.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.