Monday, July 26, 2010

Field Museum Week!

The Field Museum, North Entrance
The north entrance of the Field Museum

I recently had a chance to visit that cathedral of natural history I'm glad to call my home turf, Chicago's Field Museum. It had been a few years, and there was plenty of new stuff to look forward to. The Mammoths and Mastodons exhibition was in town (featuring Lyuba), the Grainger Hall of Gems was reopened after renovations, and the 10th anniversary celebration of Sue's unveiling was still in full swing. So I sprung for the full access pass for both Jennie and myself and dug in. As is always the case, we saw maybe 25% of what is publicly visible; thinking about what lies behind restricted-access doors just makes me dizzy. I could seriously do nothing but visit a single large museum for the entirety of a week's vacation, but that's a tough sell when you're happily married and hope to stay that way.

What we did see was substantial enough that I figured I'd devote a whole week of posts to it. I readily admit that my photography skills aren't exactly professional, so please forgive the odd blurry shot or awkward angle through stubbornly shiny glass. I weeded through the best photos and put them in a Flickr set. I also must apologize for being less than thorough in my labeling; I tried to take as many reference shots of labels and plaques as I could, but I often forgot or the shot came out poorly in low light. Some of the fossils that I don't know by sight aren't labeled, but it won't affect these posts too much as I have decent command of dinosaur taxa. And hopefully keener minds than mine will toss out an ID here or there.

A welcoming site from South Lake Shore Drive: the Field's Brachiosaurus

Caveats, mea culpas, and preemptive apologies out of the way, I'll kick off the week with a little background on the Field. An outgrowth of the World's Columbian Exhibition, an event that has left a lingering mark on American culture - including literary works such as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth - the museum was founded in 1893 as the Columbian Museum, gaining the "Field" the next year with a generous 1 million dollar grant from Chicago retail baron Marshall Field. As described in The Century magazine, the museum was to be "a magnificent fireproof building especially adapted for its purposes into which could be gathered at the close of the Exposition such antiquities and articles of historical value as the Fair had brought together the same to be made the nucleus of a great museum for the education of the people for all time."

North Facade of Field Columbian Museum
The old Field Museum in 1912. From the Field Museum Library at Flickr commons.

The building the Field Columbian Museum occupied had been the exhibition's Palace of the Fine Arts, and had never been intended to be its permanent home. In a 1905 book reviewing American museums, German anthropologist Adolf Bernard Meyer described the building as being a bit small to house the museum's enormous collections - which in his opinion needed to be pared down - and stated that the building housing the American Museum in New York was "incomparably better." He also devoted quite a bit of space fretting that the fireproof ideal voiced in The Century didn't come to fruition. "I believe," he wrote, "that in spite of all the careful precautionary regulations the expensive collections of the Columbian Museum are seriously endangered in this building..."Around the same time as Meyer's review, the museum was rechristened again, dropping four syllables to become simply the Field Museum.

Meyer didn't live long enough to see the museum move to its current location on the lakefront just south of the Loop in 1921 (the bizarre parade is described in a March 1920 article in The Illustrated World magazine). Field had left the museum $8 million when he died, half of which was set aside for the construction of a new building. Chicago's premier scientific institution would have a worthy permanent home, and to this day the Field maintains world-class collections and promotes vital research in all areas of natural history.

I could easily be writing this about a museum with a different name. Marshall Field was known for being a relatively clean businessman, but he wasn't a Carnegie-style visionary. In fact, he wasn't eager to lend his name to the museum at all. He had to be convinced by fellow business tycoon and future museum president Edward Ayer, who made the point that Field had, as yet, not done a single thing to provide himself with a legacy. At first, Field refused. "I don't know anything about a museum and I don't care to know anything about a museum. I'm not going to give you a million dollars," he's quoted as saying, sounding like a true stick-in-the-mud.
Ayers' argument must have been convincing in the end, and Field bought his legacy with a down payment of a million dollars. Marshall Field's department store would be a Chicago icon over the next century or so, but Ayer's instinct proved correct. When the Macy's company bought the store in 2005, Field's name was dropped, leaving the museum his lasting mark on Chicago.

Tomorrow, we'll get down and dirty with the Tyrannosaurus rex who conquered Chicago (and our hearts), Sue.


  1. Have they corrected her furcula? If not, tell them to! Last time I was there, the poor girl had a pair of pathologic gastralia holding her sternals together!

  2. Yes, it's fixed, as far a I can tell. It certainly doesn't look like gastralia! My photos are all really huge and there are two that give good looks at it:



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