A look inside the NEW Bess Bower Dunn Museum {Libertyville}

The Bess Bower Dunn Museum is owned and operated by the Lake County Forest Preserve District which is an advertising partner of Little Lake County.  


Over a year ago the Lake County Forest Preserve District closed the Lake County Discovery Museum and began moving their extensive collection of Lake County artifacts to a new location in Libertyville. The new museum opened in March and is a pure delight.

dunn museum libertyville

Arrive Curious. Leave Inspired.

That’s the new motto of the museum and it fulfills that totally. I had a guided tour of the new museum before it opened by the Superintendent of Educational Facilities, Andrew Osborne. He oversaw the project and has so much passion for Lake County and the history it was hard to not be excited with him. The mission of the new space is to walk you through the history of Lake County chronologically, while connecting the historical objects back to the county today. You see it over and over again throughout the museum as then and now history plays out as you move through space and time.

One of the reasons for the move to a more modern building was to better store and protect the nearly 20,000 artifacts the museum owns. In fact, one of the new features you will see throughout the museum are large climate controlled display cases. These new cases allow for the staff to more easily get to the artifacts to change them out with other items. On display is just a small percentage of the collection and these cases will make updating and rotating displays easier.

dunnm useum libertyville

The Dunn Museum’s new central location provides more than twice the gallery space for exhibitions.  Enter behind the dinosaur and you will find a clear path that takes you through the timeline of Lake County from prehistoric through today. The museum is broken down into five time periods each in their own room/section.  As you walk through you will see the walls change color to give you a visual change as well. Below is a quick video through the whole museum, I’ll break down each section after that.


The museum is just big enough to entertain small children for an hour or two. Perfect for a morning or afternoon playdate without the big fuss or exhaustion of a day trip to a large museum. I visited over spring break with all four kids ages 5 through 13 and everyone found things they enjoyed and engaged with, and none of it was the same!

In each section you will see some old favorites as well as new items. Everything is encouraged to be hands-on and there are activities and displays for the most curious little hands to partake in without worry of setting off alarms. Your adventure begins in Prehistoric Lake County which was a hit with my dinosaur loving 5-year-old. There is a life-sized replica of Dryptosaurus, a large fossil covered rock, and an interactive dinosaur dig. The most popular location by far.

dunn mueum libertyville

While it looks like sand or corn in the picture, it’s a totally clean, eco-friendly seed, that looks like a lentil and feels like plastic, It’s was fun to play with and easy for the museum to clean up.  If you have mouthy toddlers I would avoid this area or keep a sharp eye on them, otherwise you may be finding these seeds in future diapers.

After dinosaurs you move on to The First People. The museum worked with local Native American groups and scholars to help re-create the wigwam and tell the stories of both Lake County’s Natives and the Native American people as a whole.

dunn museum liberrtyville

The museum has an extensive collection of beautiful artifacts that are all on display. Children (and adults!) can see how the wigwam structure was built and how the people lived. There is a replica fire, storage, beds, and even food. When you walk in there are lamented cards that will help you find items through the exhibit – think of it as an I spy! It also tells you how the object was used. As you move through the museum you will notice that there are many areas that are available to be closed off, like the wigwam, to allow for classes and school groups without disrupting the whole museum.  As you leave the wigwam you will notice one of several trees with a computer attached to it:

dunn museum libertyville

Located on each of these trees is a modern child’s favorite object, a touch screen computer. These are loaded with maps that were custom programmed by LCFPD staff to show you where the stories in the exhibit are out in the community, for example Bonner Farm. In addition to connecting you to where you are on the Lake County map they allow you to see the past and present with sliding maps that let you split the screen to the 1900’s and today. Each map is a little different drawing from a different historical period and some use spy glasses instead of sliders, my oldest thought it was really neat.

Moving on from First People you enter An American Frontier which interprets how Lake County was settled by non-native people and includes individual stories of those early settlers, including the Bonner’s of Bonner Farm. Previous Lake County Discovery Museum goers will recognize parts of the one room schoolhouse that has returned to allow today’s students see what school used to be like. 

The exhibt then moves to the home-front of the Civil War with stories and re-enactments (shot at Lakewood during Civil War Days). Also displayed is an authentic Gatling gun which, if you stand under the speaker you can hear shooting.

The final section of the museum is the Innovations and Preservation. This is where you get into more modern Lake County with the expansion of the railroads and booming industry and agriculture. Highlight of course- is the train table. Covered with a historic map children can recreate Lake County’s rail lines and use blocks to replicate local factories. You’ll see the stories of local businesses such as a recreation of the wall of Foulds Pasta. You then move into the favorite of many the history of the Chain O’ Lakes and the Lotus boat.

You finish in the Woodland Theater which showcases the work of the LCFPD through stories by their own staff. The photo murals that you see above and throughout the museum all feature Lake county locales – not stock photos – again tying the physical objects back to the land.

In addition to the permanent exhibits there is one room that will feature rotating special exhibits. Currently that room features Illinois Bicentennial (1818-2018) with 200 Objects that Made Lake County History.  A collaborative project between the Dunn  Museum and member institutions of the Lake County Historical Alliance.

The new building also houses the Forest Preserve General Offices as well as a Research Center, classroom, and gift shop. Localvores, like us, will be delighted to see that the gift shop is full of local vendors and Museum branded pieces. We saw local bath bombs and jewelry as well as art prints.

Some things to keep in mind when visiting the new museum:

  • The museum is located on the first floor of the Lake County Forest Preserve General Office. From The Chapel and the Libertyville Soccer complex on Winchester Road, turn on Technology way and follow the signs. It’s the first driveway on the left when you enter, and you will see the museum entrance.
  • There is a small snack area with vending machines, tables and chairs and you can bring your own food to enjoy.
  • Bathrooms are located outside the actual museum, so best to visit before you come in, otherwise you will be winding through to get out to use them to come back in.
  • There is one entrance and exit – through the gift shop – so there may be a line when you walk in on busy days. It also means if you have a runner they have a few obstacles before they can get out!
  • There are no lockers but there are coat racks right near the entrance.
  • I didn’t take a stroller but aside from a possible tight fit getting in, the rest of the museum had plenty of room for strollers.

What’s with the new name? The museum is named after Bess Bower Dunn, Lake County’s first official historian. If you visited the Growing Up in Lake County exhibit at the Lake County Discovery Museum you will recognize her as the little girl who took you through the exhibit. Bess traveled throughout Lake County in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s photographing historic sites and recording the stories of local residents. Some of the artifacts in the museum’s collection are hers. The new name is just another way to connect the museum and the stories to the local people and community.

If you haven’t had a chance to go visit make sure you add it to your calendar soon!

 Dunn Mueum
DUNN Museum
1899 W. Winchester Rd., Libertyville, IL 60048 | (847) 968-3400
Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserve District:
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | YouTube

The Dunn Museum is open 10:00 a.m. m – 5:00 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday
12:00 – 5:00 p.m. Sunday, Closed on Mondays
Special Events/Hours:
Tuesdays are Discount Days – Children younger than 17 are Free (with an adult) and adults are only $3
First and Third Thursday of the month the museum stays open until 8:00 p.m. with family activities and FREE admission (after 5:00 p.m.) courtesy of USG
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Disclosure: The Lake County Forest Preserves and the Dunn Museum are Lake County advertising partners. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

About Melissa Haak 626 Articles
Melissa is mom to 4. She used to dream of traveling the world, now she dreams of a clean kitchen. She can be found on most social media sites as @PBinmyHair because with this much hair and four kids, you're bound to find something in it.

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