Sam Gappmayer wants to pick your brain.

He wants your ideas. He wants to know what you think should play at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Gappmayer has spent eight months as its president and CEO, stabilizing a fledgling museum that had lost public trust after repeated structural changes and dubious attendance mathematics. After immersing himself in the venue itself, Gappmayer is peeking around more these days to check out this place called Peoria in search of turnstyle-spinning inspiration.

“It used to be, a museum would hang something on a wall and say, ‘Come and take a look,’” Gappmayer says. “The paradigm has shifted.”

Gappmayer talks with easygoing patter that calmly offers a sense of command — that he knows what he is talking about. His 35 years of museum experience include an immediate past stint for five years running the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. When he arrived there, the venue — in a scenario like Peoria’s later — was beset with unrealized expectations. But in his last year at the center, attendance soared 22 percent.

How? In part, Gappmayer isn’t afraid to go outside timeworn museum models. For sure, he respects the traditional museum focus on art, science history and achievement. Even then, there are more intriguing ways to engage visitors than just set out dioramas and antiques. To that extent, the public has a lot to offer, he says.

“We’re trying to move to more openness, with more community involvement,” Gappmayer says.

For instance, in Colorado, Gappmayer would meet with a group of local folks in an informal setting, people who not only were “thinkers” but heavy consumers of pop culture, he says. The museum would ask them about all sorts of topics, including social issues and social activities. The anecdotal evidence would give the museum ideas for exhibits that could go in multiple directions. For example, their intake of TV news gave them a concern about immigration, which in turn could spark an exhibit on the country’s history of immigration, with modern tie-ins via speakers and panels.

That latter, interactive aspect is a key to modern museums’ offering more depth, Gappmayer says. And it’s not all egg-headed. For instance, in a few months, the museum will host a touring exhibit on awkward family photos, a subject that gets heavy play via social media. In addition to offering the traveling photos of bad sweaters and embarrassing poses, the museum will solicit local family shots. Then, speakers might debate the evolving notion of family: what constitutes a family in America in the 21st Century?

“The silliness (of the photos) gives us a reason to have a deeper discussion,” Gappmayer says.

Meantime, in reaching out to Peoria, Gappmayer also seeks local touches for exhibits — those that would not only reflect the city but draw guests. Doing both is hard.

For instance, it’s easy to say, “Do something on Dan Fogelberg.” Or Fibber McGee. Or a litany of Peorians who did well in their field. But ask yourself this: what does the museum “do” with something like that? Does it put up a photo of Fogelberg next to some of his albums? Does it create a statue of Fibber McGee? What would either do for Peoria that we don’t already know? And, maybe even more importantly, what would either do to bring in visitors?

That’s the key question: why would outsiders — remember, the museum needs new ticket-buyers to be viable — find any specific exhibit interesting?

It’s a dilemma even with the likes of Richard Pryor and Jim Thome. Yes, each is renowned enough to merit far more recognition that the museum currently offers. And surely an outsider would be intrigued to find that two titans in their fields are from Peoria. But how does the museum put them on display? A tape of Pryor, telling (bleeped) jokes? A video of Thome, smacking a baseball? That’s not bad, but not any more compelling beyond what you can find on YouTube.

So, at Gappmayer’s request, I made a handful of suggestions.

Old-time crime: Beyond just the Shelton Gang, there’s rich material here, with multiple unsolved gangland murders. Maybe that sounds exploitative or crass, but that sort of thing certainly plays well in Chicago. Imagine short documentaries (maybe just a few minutes each) akin to the true-crime shows that are all over TV these days. A narrator moves the story along, with the help of old photos and headlines, plus input from local historians. Plus, Peoria thespians could reenact the crimes and disappearances. If the quality is high, so will attention at the museum. Or, the pieces could be longer and strung together, then shown like movies on the museum’s big screen.

Gappmayer, theretofore unaware of Peoria’s extensive criminal past, smiled at the notion: “That could be good. People are drawn to that.”

Unexplained Peoria: Though natives might yawn at some of our familiar ghost stories — which go far beyond the Bartonville asylum — remember that most outsiders have never heard these tales. Scoff or not, many people can’t get enough of spooky stories, which could get the same treatment as described above for Peoria’s old crimes.

“I think haunted Peoria would be a great exhibit,” Gappmayer says. “We, as people, are so drawn to the macabre.”

Asian carp: Enough said. Online, viewers flock to see the disgusting flying fish, especially when crazy anglers try to spear them. The museum needs to simply cobble some of this footage together — and, at least once, serve Asian carp nuggets at the concession stand.

Don’t like those ideas? Then tell me yours. Send them to the email address below. I’ll share any good ones in a later column.

Remember, the goal is not to simply honor Peoria or our forebears. The museum needs fun and interesting stories and approaches, to get outsiders to check the place out.

Crime, ghosts, carp — now that’s a night at the museum. Now, what can you add?

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at, or (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter @LucianoPhil.