Warning: the following post contains images of human specimens that may make some viewers uncomfortable.
Similar to The Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry is a huge cultural institution that you could spend the whole day exploring. Everything from the building itself to the collection has a fascinating history. We never intended on visiting this museum. Why we decided to go will soon be revealed.
History of the Building
Try to imagine Chicago in the 1880s. A huge fire, that is estimated to have destroyed 90% of the city, had only occurred a decade prior. Community spirit, finances from business magnates and the ingenuity of architects melded together eventually resulting in huge parts of the city being rebuilt. It is actually quite astonishing how quickly new buildings went up. A huge World Exposition was planned for 1892 to celebrate 400 years since the journey of Christopher Columbus. New York, St Louis and Washington DC all threw their hats in the ring to host. Pressure was on considering Paris had wowed the world in 1889 by unveiling the Eiffel Tower at their Exposition Universelle.
Chicago also stepped forward and no one thought for a second that they would win the vote. Spoiler alert, they did and Chicago only had a couple of years to prepare everything from the buildings to the exhibitions. I’m currently reading The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson who beautifully maps out how this all played out and how it almost didn’t happen. It was so close to failing and then, suddenly, there were buildings, a park was designed by the same individual who designed Central Park, Frederick Olmsted, and Chicago welcomed over 27 million visitors in a six month period.
I’ll note here that The Devil refers to Dr H H Holmes and his murder castle. A great book to read if you’re also interested in true crime.
Why is this relevant? The Museum of Science and Industry building was originally constructed to exhibit prized and valuable artworks sent over for the Exposition. So collectors and artists felt at ease, it was built from stone to be completely fireproof. Today, it is the only building left standing – a testament to the Exposition. The collection held in this building just after the Exposition is now at The Field Museum and has been replaced with what you see today.
In my previous blog post I talked about quality over quantity when it comes to visiting large museums. I want to talk a little bit more about how I start my visit when I feel overwhelmed. First things first, I obviously purchase a ticket if necessary. Then, I grab a visitor’s map and find the nearest cafe. Chances are, there will be a couple to choose from. After getting something to eat and drink, I open the map and plan my route. This gives me the opportunity to make sure I don’t miss anything or spend too long in one part at the expense of seeing something else I’m more enthused about. I decided on three exhibitions: YOU! The Experience, Yesterday’s Main Street and Science Storms.
Side note: I said at the beginning of this post that we had no initial plans to visit the Museum. However, at The Art Institute of Chicago, I found a book on what to do in Chicago. The first page I opened to was on the Museum of Science and Industry. I skimmed a few lines and saw the words “human specimens”. All of a sudden, we were going to visit this museum.
YOU! The Experience
This is such an intense exhibition on the human body. One of the reasons why I say this is because there is a room, completely open to the public, containing real foetal specimens displaying different developmental phases throughout pregnancy.
Although not real, there are also large displays that break down the body showing the entire nervous, circulatory, digestive and muscular systems. The nervous system absolutely unnerves me, pardon the pun.
As we made our way through the exhibition, we came to the human specimen cross sections. The introductory panel explains how these sections were prepared by staff at The University of Illinois and Cook County Hospital Anatomy Department in the 1930s and 1940s. The sections are of a man and a woman who both died of natural causes. They were originally used in university medical teaching until 1943 when they were donated to the Museum for public education. I thought they were fantastic to have on display and can only hope they spark many discussions about health and the human body.
Dispersed throughout the exhibition are plenty of displays exploring themes such as happiness, health and vitality. There are also many interactives. For example, for vitality there is a game called ‘Mindball’. To play, you need two players to sit opposite each other. In the middle is a straight track with a ball positioned in the centre. Each player wears a headband that tracks brain waves. To win, you must be as relaxed as possible. This will push the ball towards your opponent until it reaches the end. I have honestly never seen a group of primary school kids so quiet in my entire life as they each took turns to focus and win.
Yesterday’s Main Street
In this exhibition you can walk down the Main Street of Chicago in 1910. Highlights include seeing a dentist’s office and a pharmacy. There is also a movie theatre where you can go to watch a silent film.
We were very excited for the ice-cream shop, but, it was closed on the day we visited. Disappointing because I’m sure the ice-cream would have been delicious.
The first thing that will catch your eye is the huge tornado at the entrance of this exhibition. Ive included a photograph below so you can see the scale. Science Storms also covers rainbows, avalanches, tsunamis and sunlight, to name a few. There are a couple of things I want to briefly mention.
Dotted around the exhibition are listening stations. Rather than having a lot of different noises competing with each other, the various audio elements are isolated. This made things a lot easier to hear and I was surprised by just how well they were able to direct the sound.
Once you have seen the large tornado, you have the opportunity to try and create your own, on a more miniature scale. It took me a while, but I managed to make my own little tornado. I was so proud.
One thing that works really well with regard to the Museum layout is that there are four staircases each with their own colour. This helped us to navigate. I imagine it is of great help to school groups as well. If you’re trying to remember where something is near or need help with orientation, all you need to do is take note of the colour and you can find your way around.
The Museum offers low sensory experiences a few times a year. Exhibitions are altered on this day until noon and noise reducing headphones and weighted vests, amongst other things, are available. I absolutely applaud this practice and considering their last couple have been completely booked out, it’s being embraced.
There are quite a few other tours available so definitely head to the website for more information.
The Museum of Science and Industry is open daily from 9.30 am to 4 pm. Tickets are available online. There are a range of experiences you can also book so make sure you research these before selecting a ticket option. It is an accessible museum. There are food options available. If you have your own food, you are able to use the food court tables. Overall, it is a very welcoming museum.