Peoria Riverfront Museum: A Review

Justin Miller

Oct. 20, 2012, will always be remembered as a historic day for Peoria.

The 10-year process and wait for the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitor's Center came to an end Saturday with a grand opening.

"What a great day for Peoria, a great day for Illinois and a great day for the community," CAT Director of Corporate Affairs Jim Baumgartner said.

The day's events started bright and early when CAT Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman arrived on a CAT electric train to the eager crowds of VIPs who were waiting in the early morning fog.

Speeches were then made by Oberhelman, United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Peoria County Board Chairman Tom O'Neill, Peoria Riverfront Museum President and CEO Jim Richerson, Peoria Riverfront Museum Board Chairman Dave Ransburg, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and Congressman Aaron Schock.

"Our community, what would it be without CAT?" LaHood asked. "We wouldn't be the great community we are without CAT."

Throughout the speeches, the representatives touted how the day was a culmination of a lot of people's time, efforts and money.

"If you are visiting the museum for the first time, you're not going to believe this is right here in Peoria," Baumgartner said.

For the Visitors Center and the Riverfront Museum project in general, CAT spent more than $52 million.

Following the speeches and rounds of congratulations from the politicians and CAT officials, the ribbon was cut and those of us in attendance were given a private tour of the facilities before they opened to the general public.

As I strolled the nearly 50,000-square-foot visitors center I saw CAT equipment of every day and age on display, creating a trip through the company's history.

There was a variety of CAT equipment placed throughout the visitor's center with videos and documents explaining each one's use and history.

Not only was the past and present on display, but the future has been accounted for as well.

In the lobby of the center, there is a time capsule that was sealed by Oberhelman.

The capsule will be opened in the year 2050, the 125th anniversary of CAT, presumedly by Peorians who have arrived on hovercars fresh from the latest trip to a far away galaxy. Or maybe I've watched Star Trek too many times and it will just be opened by the latest eager patrons ready to hear about CAT's past.

I was heartened and surprised to hear that the center actually used green energy and that CAT had solar panels placed on the parking deck that can provide around 10 percent of the center's annual energy usage.

Most impressive to me in the visitor's center was the 797F Mining Truck Theatre, a small theater housed inside the bed of a 400-ton-capacity 797F mining truck. Almost anywhere I was in the visitor's center, I could see some part of the massive truck.

Besides CAT tractors, trucks and various equipment there was, of course, a massive CAT store with any kind of CAT gear one could want.

After getting my fill of CAT, I left the building and made the short walk over to the museum.

"The museum is fabulous, absolutely fabulous," volunteer Gleneta Reaugh said. "This is a wonderful opportunity for all of the people to look at the history of Peoria and be exposed to the arts and to just come together."

My day in the museum started in the Illinois High School Association's Peak Performance Center. Being the only person in the section of the museum at the time, I had my pick of various skill tests to try. My poor time in the balance test was redeemed by my success at the strength test but the section reminded me that I'm no Andrew Luck.

For kids and the kids at heart, the discovery worlds, housed next to the IHSA exhibit, offer plenty to do with various construction sets, dinosaur figures and a water area. I was hoping to see some kids enjoying the section but they were busy in other areas when I was there.

Right off of the IHSA part was the Illinois River Encounter. This section showed off various facts and history tidbits about the river, the ecosystem around the river, transportation on the water and the future of the river area. What should excite kids on a field trip will be the classrooms near the exhibit where they can get hands-on experience learning about what makes the river so powerful.

After rollin' on the river, I headed to the International Feature Gallery, which was currently showing artwork in various mediums from Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties.

"It's hard to describe the process," gallery host Nancy Hoover said of the preparations for the opening. "Everyday that I have come in, there have been new things and it's just overwhelming.

"It is fantastic seeing people's reactions and hearing what they say."

My favorite piece of art was a painting called "Rhino Man" of a rhino in a suit. Seriously, who would not like a rhino dressed like a corporate businessman?

I missed the showing at the planetarium but was able to look inside. After taking an astronomy class at Bradley that met at Lakeview Museum's planetarium on occasion, I could tell that the one at the Riverfront Museum was a definite step above.

Finally, I checked out The Street, the area of the museum dedicated to the history of Peoria. Throughout this room there were artifacts and writing on the wall describing various points in Peoria's history. For someone currently catching up on Boardwalk Empire, the small amount of information about Peoria's heyday during the prohibition era was fascinating.

While I had a good time overall, the museum left me feeling a little underwhelmed. If I were a student, a field trip to the museum would be an exciting prospect to get out of school. However, after being told how shocked and wowed I would be at the whole thing, I expected more. Each area was presented well but I felt that there was not enough in each area to hold one's interest for very long. Unless someone was vastly interested in CAT's history, I cannot imagine the visitor's center will be a huge draw. Perhaps the opening was rushed for some reason, since more than one area felt unfinished and slightly empty.

Even though I was disappointed following such an extended buildup, I was pleased at the amount of green energy put into the event and the friendliness of the workers and volunteers.

Only time will tell if the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center plays in Peoria.