Kristan McKinsey is Curating Magic on the Riverfront

Kristan McKinsey, senior curator at the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Peoria, Illinois

By Amanda Stoll / Photography by Craig Stocks

For many people art is a hobby, but Kristan McKinsey has found a way to make it her work as well. She is the senior curator and director of collections at the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Kristan was born in Missouri before her family moved to India for her father’s job with the United States Agency for International Development. “It gave me a better understanding of the world and our place, America’s place, in the world and the diversity of cultures and people,” said Kristan. “It’s a whole perspective that I would not have had if I had only lived in America.”

She went on to study Art History with a concentration in Asian Studies at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. After graduate studies in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware, she began working as the Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts at the St. Louis Art Museum.

“I’m a lot more interested in objects,” she said. She described working as a curator as “above ground archaeology.” What interests her is the design and context of artifacts and artistic pieces.

Kristan worked at the Evanston Historical Society prior to her 17 years at the Peoria museum. Jokingly, she calls herself “curator of the world” because she is involved in the curation of art, science, history, and achievement exhibits.

Currently on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum are several exhibits on central Illinois history, sports, and the river. In general, however, the art displays feature more than just local pieces. “We’re not a museum about local art,” said Kristan. “We’re trying to provide the opportunity for [people in Peoria] to experience what they might see in a big city museum.” A large display of original prints by noted landscape photographer Ansel Adams opens on April 13, 2013.

Being a curator gives her the opportunity to constantly learn, which is one of the things she loves most about her job.  “With each exhibit there are new things to learn,” said Kristan. “It’s like I get to go to school, except I don’t have to pay tuition.”

She also enjoys meeting new and interesting people, whether it be the artists themselves, the lenders, or the people visiting the museum. Watching people “make connections” while they are viewing a piece or taking a gallery tour is another gratifying experience she witnesses as curator.

A few times a year, she gets the opportunity to work with students who come for an after school program. “It’s so exciting to see the kids respond,” she said.

She has input in everything in the museum’s exhibits and works with a team to create the best experience possible for visitors.  Many of the non-art exhibits have interactive and hands-on experiences, especially the IHSA Peak Performance exhibit. Visitors get a chance to learn about sports in an interactive gallery that changes with the seasons.

The task of looking for new pieces and new exhibits to host at the museum is a never-ending job for Kristan. Many of the exhibits come to the museum already designed and built and ready for display, but sometimes she gets the opportunity to create her own collection of pieces. For the museum’s 40th anniversary, she put together a collection with 40 pieces—one from each year. With more than 17,000 objects in the museum’s collection plus anything else she can get her hands on, Kristan has more than enough material to create her magic.

“It’s [about] my own growth and then helping other people grow.”

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is open daily at 222 S.W. Washington Street in Peoria. Hours and a calendar of events are available at the museum’s website at

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About Craig

I have a passion to create, and I'm fascinated with the tools and technologies of creativity. My process is to interpret the scene through a combination of camera position, light and post-processing to present my unique vision and share the emotion I feel.