Museum unveils Prohibition exhibit


One of the interactive features of the new exhibit is learning to dance the Charleston in a re-created speakeasy. Courtesy GRPM

Grand Rapids Public Museum’s newest exhibit is one of the most interesting and interactive ever to make a stop in the city, according to museum officials.

American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition opened Sept. 26 and is a natural fit for Grand Rapids, said Christie Bender, Grand Rapids Public Museum marketing and public relations manager.

The exhibit is included in the price of general admission to the museum. It will close Jan. 17, 2016 — the 95th anniversary of the beginning of Prohibition.

The stop in Grand Rapids makes great sense, Bender said.

“This exhibit has great ties to the current culture of Grand Rapids,” she said.

In 2012, GRPM put on a beer-themed exhibit called Thank You, Beer! and showed how beer was an integral part of history, including in Grand Rapids.

The Prohibition exhibit was announced in February and has been in the works for nearly a year. American Spirits is a nationally touring exhibit created by the National Constitution Center Philadelphia. It was curated by Pulitzer Prize finalist Daniel Okrent, the author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.”

Okrent’s book also served as an influence for the Ken Burns documentary “Prohibition.”

“Prohibition left an indelible mark on America, redefining the role of the federal government and leaving its mark on everything from our personal habits to our tax policies,” Okrent said in the initial press release. “And though it may have been a wild card in our constitutional history, it came into being through the invention and deployment of political tactics and strategies still in play today.”

The exhibit features more than 100 artifacts — including 11 on loan from GRPM’s own collection — from temperance propaganda to flapper dresses and a hatchet used during barroom-smashing raids.

Also featured will be items once used to make moonshine and other illegal liquors.

In line with the distilling items featured in the exhibit, Grand Rapids’ first distillery since at least Prohibition, Long Road Distillers, paired with the museum to make a bathtub gin kit — allowing ambitious customers to create their own gin using botanicals and vodka. The kit is available at Long Road Distillers.

Various activities and iPads will be found throughout the exhibit. Guests can take a quiz to find out if they would have been “wet” or “dry” during Prohibition; they also can learn to dance the Charleston in a re-created speakeasy and play a custom-built video game where players act as a federal agent chasing rumrunners.

Much like Orkent’s book, the exhibit takes visitors on a journey beginning with what life was like prior to Prohibition to the process of how the 18th Amendment found its way into being, and then shows the underground culture of the Roaring ’20s and how Prohibition still influences life today.

GRPM has partnered with a variety of organizations to bring the exhibit to life, including Long Road, New Holland Brewing Co., Westside and Alliance beverage distributors, Brewery Vivant and Anheuser-Busch.

Bender said Founders Brewing and other area breweries likely will play a role in the exhibit over the next couple of months. He said despite not being a local entity, Anheuser-Busch is included as a sponsor in part because there are artifacts from the company in the exhibit.

Various community events have been planned around the exhibit.

The opening weekend coincided with Grand Rapids Civic Theater’s run of “The Great Gatsby.” GRPM’s annual fundraiser, the Jay & Betty Van Andel Legacy Awards Gala on Nov. 12, will have with a Roaring ’20s theme.

A few days later, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council will present “Spirited Women: Grand Rapids and the Push for Temperance,” detailing the role women in the city played in the temperance movement and women’s rights.

On Dec. 5 — the 82nd anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which overturned the 18th Amendment and Prohibition — there will be a variety of workshops for adults and children. The night will include a party at SpeakEZ Lounge in downtown Grand Rapids.

Despite its adult themes, the exhibit promises to be educational for all ages, Bender said.

“It’s an educational exhibit with something for everyone,” she said. “It’s telling the story through the lens of the Constitution, but it has aspects that appeal to a variety of people.”

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