Finding true history amid the false: History Museum exhibit puts visitors in the role of curator to try to determine what is real and what isn't

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Before the Chicago History Museum puts any one of its 22 million objects and documents on display, the staff has to check out whether the object is real or fake.

But ascertaining the legitimacy of a historic object isn't as easy as it might seem.

Was a stovepipe hat that has been at the museum for more than 80 years really worn by Abe Lincoln? Is a wooden gun the one gangster John Dillinger used to break out of jail? Could a very old piece of snakeskin, long kept in museum storage, possibly be a remnant of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Visitors have the chance to judge those artifacts and others for themselves in "Is It Real?," a temporary exhibit that shows how curators work. The exhibit opened June 30 and runs through Jan. 6.

"Part of the fun of the exhibit is to show people how the work of authentication is done," curator Peter Alter said. "We're inviting visitors to think like curators, scientists and historians, using a certain kind of logic to try to determine the authenticity of objects."

The exhibit features 18 artifacts pulled from the museum's collection, which has been amassed over 151 years and is still growing with new acquisitions. Curators lay out to visitors the known facts about the provenance of each artifact: where it came from, chain of ownership, supporting documentation and even, in some cases, laboratory tests for age or other authenticating evidence.

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