Saturday, June 07, 2014

Exploring the 'Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair' is Worthwhile, Rest of Field Even Better (including Excellent Contemporary Art by Bunky Echo-Hawk) -- Museum Exhibit Review

Museum Exhibit Review

Opening the Vaults:
Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair
The Field Museum, Chicago
Thru October 7, 2014
(Museum visit overall: @@@@1/2)

I have long been fascinated by the World's Fair of 1893, which welcomed more than 25 million people to Chicago's South Side at a time when the U.S. population was less than three times that figure.

Dubbed the Columbian Exposition, as it commemorated--albeit a year late--the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, the Fair is famed for its colossal White City.

My mind is always boggled when I see photos of the conglomeration of mammoth--though mostly intentionally disposable--classically-designed buildings that once stood in Chicago's Jackson Park.

It's almost as if ancient Rome rose--largely from the imaginations of Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted--and fell within a matter of years, with scant traces of remaining evidence. 

But three of Chicago's greatest cultural institutions today trace back to the Columbian Exposition.

No, I am not referencing the Ferris Wheel on Navy Pier, though George Ferris' giant wheel built on the Midway (the first use of that term) was the first of its kind, an engineering marvel, the centerpiece of the fair and perhaps its greatest lasting worldwide contribution.

But the original wheel didn't survive past 1906, yet two of Chicago's best museums--the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry--were and are housed in the only remaining large-scale main-campus structure of the Columbian Exposition: the Palace of Fine Arts.

Following the Fair, the grand building at the north end of Jackson Park housed the Columbian Museum of Chicago, which would subsequently be renamed the Field Museum of Natural History after major benefactor Marshall Field. In 1921, the Field Museum moved to its present location a few miles north and the Museum of Science and Industry would move into the former Palace of Fine Arts during Chicago's next World's Fair, 1933's Century of Progress Exposition. 

Although the origins of the Art Institute of Chicago predate the Columbian Exposition, its main building was built to initially house the World Congress Auxiliary of the Exposition--several miles north of the fairgrounds--and the art museum moved in immediately after.

Over the years I have bought books about the 1893 World's Fair, seen museum exhibits & displays and watched short films and documentaries. (I recommend Expo: Magic of the White City.)

Still, I've been intrigued by the Field Museum's Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair exhibit ever since it opened last October, even if I only got to it last week. (Exhibit website)

I enjoyed the exhibit but only recommend it conditionally. 

Focused on artifacts displayed at the fair that are now part of the museum's holdings, the exhibit does little to showcase the grandeur of the White City itself, or the communal melting pot of the Midway, save for a few large photos and slides. 

I've always been more intrigued by the scale and architecture of the Columbian Exposition, and the visitors it attracted, than I've ever wondered much about what was displayed within the huge White City buildings. 

So in showcasing examples of botany, taxidermy, fossils and anthropology that were displayed at the 1893 Fair, the exhibit introduced me to aspects of the Exposition I hadn't ever much considered, while showcasing how the event gave birth to one of the world's great museum collections. 

I valued learning that the 1893 World's Fair was the 19th century's largest user of electricity and that some of the Field Museum's key early employees--such as taxidermist Carl Akeley, who would develop its vast zoology holdings--were individuals who had showcased their talents at the fair.

The anthropology section of the exhibit was forthright in explaining how backwards thinking in that realm was in 1893, when "savages" were put on display for spectators to observe.

Gamelan musical instrument from the Javanese Village of the 1893 World's Fair
I enjoyed reading about how 60 Labrador Inuit people who lived in a village on Fair grounds said essentially, "Forget this," and left due to degrading conditions and treatment.

And the musical instruments that were part of the Fair's Javanese Village--populated by a community from Indonesia--are the most beautiful artifacts in the current exhibit. 

So if your interest in the Columbian Exposition is as mine, and you value learning anything about it, the Field's Opening the Vaults should be worth your time.

That said, rather than pay the museum's standard "Discovery Pass" admission of $25, which includes general admission plus one special exhibit (e.g. Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair), I was able to avail myself of one of a handful of "Discount Days" for Illinois residents. (The next one listed is this Monday, June 9.)

Only having to pay $11 for the special exhibit, and using the CTA rather than pay at least $19 for the on-site parking garage, my expenditure was about 1/3 of what it easily could have been.

I don't know if for $44, I would have found the World's Fair exhibit quite as worthwhile.

And for whatever price you may pay, even if you're a Columbian Exposition aficionado I wouldn't visit the museum simply for this exhibit.

Allot some time for several of the Field's permanent collections; I greatly enjoyed seeing and photographing those on Ancient Egypt, the Ancient Americas, a modern African community and a terrific contemporary Native American artist named Bunky Echo-Hawk.
And it's always fun to see Sue, the Field's prized T-Rex. 

Japanese jar used for tea storage
In fact, I likely enjoyed the permanent exhibits more than the one I paid to see.

It was interesting how the World's Fair contributed to the Field's early collections, but much else is more visually and intellectually compelling, such as the wonderful collection of Native American masks, totem poles and more. 

Bottom line, if you go to the Field for the World's Fair exhibit, see more than just it. And if you go the Field for the rest of the museum, the exhibit may only be worth your time and money if you have a particular interest in the Columbian Exposition. 

Especially the parts I likely wouldn't have seen even if I was there in 1893.

(Along with photos of the 1893's World's Fair exhibit--in spite of a security guard erroneously telling me photography was forbidden; good thing I argued and had him ask someone who knew better--photos from other Field Museum exhibits are below. You may need to click to see them past the page break.)

Photos, and those above, from Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair:
Model of a giant squid
A skirt made of coconut fiber
Snail Fossil

Sioux moccasins

Photos of other items at the Field Museum:

Next four photos from Bunky Echo-Hawk: Modern Warrior exhibit, through June 7, 2015

Study Buddies by Bunky Echo-Hawk
If Yoda Was An Indian... by Bunky Echo-Hawk
Ghost Dishes by Bunky Echo-Hawk

No comments: