ALTON – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rivers Project Office invites you to view a new art exhibit that will be unveiled at the National Great Rivers Museum. Reversing Course: The Illinois River in 1900 and Today looks at 11 sites along the Illinois River depicted through both black-and-white historical photographs and current in-color images by Watershed Cairns© artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan.

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Since 2011, Reuter and Rowan have collaborated on defining what a watershed looks like and how people use them. They have traveled to over 400 locations within the Mississippi River watershed, placing Reuters’ glass cairns within the watershed which are then photographed by Rowan. Every glass cairn is strategically placed in specifically scouted scenes of some of the most beautiful and unexpected sites along the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers. The cairns are handmade sculptures assembled from household antique glass that signify the watershed as fragile, beautiful, and deeply connected to everyday life.

Photographs documenting the Illinois River Valley after the City of Chicago diverted the polluted Chicago River into the Illinois inspired the contemporary artists to investigate further. “Researching the Illinois River, I learned that photographers from Chicago’s Sanitary and Shipping Canal had extensively documented the river and surrounding land after the canal opened, from 1900 to about 1923,” said Libby Reuter. “The book ‘Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and Beyond’ introduced the history with beautiful black-and-white photos and inspired us to see the river in a new way.”

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The pair of artists then set out to photograph the Illinois River at the same or similar sites to those documented in the historic photographs, to bring attention to both economic and ecological issues along the Illinois River in the 120 years since those photographs were first taken. The stark contrast between the historic and current photos are what visitors to the National Great Rivers Museum can expect to experience when viewing the new exhibit.

“We are excited to host this new exhibit with local artists Libby Reuter and Joshua Rowan,” said Elise Ratcliff, Natural Resources Specialist and Park Ranger at the National Great Rivers Museum. “Their Watershed Cairns series will offer visitors a unique perspective on the importance of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which can be supplemented with other information found throughout the Museum. By adding the lens of art to our understanding of river issues, we will be able to more completely tell the story of our Nation’s large rivers.”

Reversing Course: The Illinois River in 1900 and Today will open at the National Great Rivers Museum on May 6th and will run through November 3rd, 2024. Visitors to the museum can view the exhibit daily during this time from 9am – 5pm, free of charge. The Museum will also host an opening reception with Reuter and Rowan on Saturday, May 11th from 2pm – 4pm. During this time, the artists will be on hand to answer questions and engage with visitors as they view this new, engaging art exhibit.

Historic photographs are courtesy of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. The exhibit was made possible by a grant from Illinois Humanities, through Alton Forward as the project’s fiscal sponsor.

The National Great Rivers Museum is located at 2 Locks and Dam Way, Alton, IL and is open daily from 9am – 5pm. For additional questions, please call the Museum at 618-462-6979.

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