Museums in minutes
Ditch the docents and use our one-hour itineraries to score a quick fix of culture at Chicago's biggest repositories of art, history, science and, well, fish
The Art Institute of Chicago
Brush up on the famous artworks you remember from your college humanities class
Be forewarned: "At least two to four of the most popular areas of our collection—the Impressionism and Post-Impressionism paintings—are lent out each month," says Gloria Groom, curator of Medieval through modern European painting. Fortunately for you, we know these celebrity artworks are on display now.
Go through the museum's front entryway, climb the grand staircase and start at Caillebotte's painting Paris Street; Rainy Day. Look for the mysterious man driving a carriage without horses on the far-left side—a strange detail missed by even the biggest art aficionados.
Next, breeze past Caillebotte's fellow Impressionists—Monet, Sisley, Cézanne and Morisot (one of the few women in the group) and head two rooms to the right. Stop at Van Gogh's vibrant Bedroom at Arles. If you've seen it before—and not just in poster form—that's because Van Gogh obsessively painted three scenes just like it, which hang in other museums.
Turn right and stop at the Art Institute's most popular attraction, and a Ferris Bueller favorite, Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. "It means so much to so many people inChicago," Groom says. "It's our Mona Lisa."
From there, turn to the right again and stop at Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge paintings, some of the very artworks that helped inspire the movie. Forget Nicole Kidman's consumptive courtesan, the green- faced figures are not sick; they're reflecting a green hue from gas lamps—known as limelights—used in the late 1800s.
Go out the door, walk left, then turn left again, and you'll find the image of tranquil, flora-filled water that's covered thousands of day planners: Monet's Water Lilies.
Finish in the American Art rooms (you'll have to go down to the first floor to connect over to the Rice building, and then back up to the second floor for the American collection), where you can puzzle over the enigmatic café scene of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and contemplate Grant Wood's American Gothic, supposedly named for the Gothic Revival–style farmhouse in the background. Top off your tour with a visit to the gift shop, where you'll find all of these masterpieces plastered on mugs that prove you visited this museum—however brief your stay.
The overlooked masterpieces
Avoid camera-wielding tourists and see often-skipped but no less powerful works
Begin with a moment of meditation in the tranquil Ando Room in the Asian Art section. The dark, wood-scented exhibition space, built in 1996 by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, was constructed to be dimly lit, and therefore goes unnoticed by inattentive tourists.
Leave the room, turn right into the contemporary section and stop at Carl Andre's Steel Aluminum Plain, which is spread across the floor. Don't be timid, get up close—you can walk across the metal sculpture. "The viewer's meant to touch and walk on it; it becomes part of your experience of the space, rather than an isolated art object," says Lisa Dorin, assistant curator of contemporary art. Next, head up the back staircase; you'll pop up on the second floor in the midst of huge abstract paintings. Pass the splattered paint of the Abstract Expressionists (that canvas in the far-right corner of room 238A is Jackson Pollock's painting Greyed Rainbow). Continue straight ahead and pause by the nearly pornographic paintings by Balthus—images we're not comfortable describing in this magazine. Bypass the crowds at the Impressionists, stop at room 244 and look up. That's not a hat rack hanging from the ceiling. Well, it is, but it's also a work of art by Marcel Duchamp, called Hat Rack. Duchamp transformed the discipline by introducing the idea that art can be conceptual. "We expect the hat rack to be hung with hats and Duchamp takes it and hangs it as an artwork instead," says Stephanie D'Alessandro, associate curator of Medieval through modern European painting and sculpture.
End your tour by heading down the grand staircase to the lower level and go into the Thorne Rooms. All of the 68 miniature scenes were designed by a Chicago woman who hired master craftsmen to re-create American and European interiors, ranging from the 13th century to the 1930s, on a one-inch to one-foot scale. Finish out the hour by avoiding the crowds while basking in eerie artificial sunlight streaming through tiny windows.
11 S Michigan Ave, 312-443-3600, www.artic.edu. For hours, admission, free days and info on current special exhibitions.
Fierce and freaky fish
To save you from watching fish swim in circles, we skip docile creatures and focus on bloodthirsty killers
Purchase an all-access pass ($23) and head to the Shedd between 10am and noon: On most days, that's feeding time. Go in the main entrance and head right to "Amazon Rising" for fresh-water killers. Start at the fish with the worst rep, the piranha. Surprisingly, this fish's bite is not as big as its proverbial bark: One's never been known to kill a person. "Red-belly piranhas have very sharp teeth and a wide-opening jaw. When they're displayed dead, the lip is taken off so the teeth look larger," says Dan Lorbeske, an aquarist at the Shedd. Now for the real Amazon killer: the anaconda. This snake, across from the piranha tank, crushes its prey constrictor-style after hooking it with its teeth. Its choppers curve inward; trying to break out of its grip only deepens the wound.
At the end of the "Amazon" loop, turn left and you'll see the elevator. As you head down to the lower level, prepare yourself for the shark-filled waters of the "Wild Reef." It's considered a special exhibit (read: special fees), but shelling out extra for the thrills and chills found down below is worth it. Start with the deadliest animal—not a shark, but the sawfish. The green, 13-foot-long creature was named for its serrated snout. Fish can run, but they can't hide from the sawfish: Its proboscis can sense the heartbeats of its prey. This killer whips her body at great speed, obliterating everything within 23 feet of her path. Next, search for the short 4.5-foot wobbegong shark. It looks small and harmless, but this bottom dweller quietly waits for its prey and then attacks. "Even though she's not large, if she grabs on something, she won't let go," says Lise Christopher, "Wild Reef" collections manager.
1200 S Lake Shore Dr, www.sheddaquarium.org. For hours, free days, admission and info on current special exhibitions and Oceanarium shows.
The Field Museum of Natural History
Confront the Field's big, bad and occasionally gory side
Start in Stanley Field Hall: The museum's most famous tough dame, Sue the T. rex, resides here. Get a good look at her; she's the most complete and best-preserved T. rex ever discovered. From there, head to the west arcades to check out the taxidermic "Mammals of Asia." Whiz past the fierce hyenas, tigers and bears (oh, my) and at the end of the hall you'll find what President Teddy Roosevelt called "the most famous lions in history." The Tsavo lions snared their place in the history books by lunching on 140 British-hired railroad workers in 1898. "The lions stopped the British Empire in its tracks," says Bruce Patterson, the Field's MacArthur curator of mammals. "Entire nations had tried and failed at that."
Zoom back out to the main hall and take a right, toward "Inside Ancient Egypt," where the exhibit will lead you up the spiral staircase, before you head back down another staircase to see an unwrapped, leathery-skinned mummy, children's coffins, mummified birds that were sacrificed to the gods and plenty of other ancient Egyptian artifacts. You're now on the ground floor, where upon exiting, you should make a left turn and visit the (stuffed) Bushman, the first gorilla ever on display in the U.S. When the handsome beast was rumored to be on his deathbed in 1950, more than 120,000 visitors lined up outside Lincoln Park Zoo in a single day to see him. Just to your right is the Man-eater of Mfuwe, another lion with a taste for human flesh. This one terrorized Zambia's Luangwa River Valley in 1991. After he paraded through the streets flaunting a bag of his sixth victim's clothing, residents were convinced the creature was a demon from the great beyond.
Now go back upstairs, turn right and head up the staircase near the south entrance. Then turn right and walk past the Hall of Gems for the final stop on the tour. Enter "Pacific Spirits," a showcase of aboriginal Australian, Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian cultures. Browse elaborate ceremonial carvings, spears and frightening masks, and get a lesson on cannibalism. Trek back down to the main level for a bite to eat at the café—if all the talk of flesh-eating hasn't ruined your appetite.
...and The beautiful
Get an eyeful of the Field's cutest animals and most coveted baubles
Start in Stanley Field Hall near the north entrance. Walk toward Sue for a quick look before heading through the "Nature Walk" and "Messages from the Wilderness" displays, where you'll see stuffed adorables like the Mexican grizzly bear, now extinct.
Leave the animal kingdom behind for a while and retrace your steps a bit until you get to the main hall. Turn right and enter the Old Kingdom tomb of the pharaoh's son Unis-ankh for "Inside Ancient Egypt," where scarabs, gold, lapis lazuli and stealite jewelry are on display. You'll also notice the little blue ushabti figurines, which were thought to transform into servants for the deceased in the afterlife. After you follow the spiral staircase up and then down, ending up on the ground level, breeze through the rest of the exhibit, exit left and walk up the staircase near the Lion of Mfuwe. Walk across the great hall to the Wall of Shoes, featuring kicks from around the world. Though some of the shoes date back to the 19th century, many—such as the fur-trimmed Eskimo mukluk boots and beaded, embroidered juttis from Pakistan—would fit right in on the shelf at Nordstrom.
Next, head up the staircase near the south entrance, turn left and head to the Hall of Jade. Highlights here include a huge selection of snuff bottles, a 281-pound imperial jar and a jadeite gong bell. Exit the hall, and swing back across, past the stairs, to the Grainger Hall of Gems. As New Age music is piped into the dark room, stroll around the glass cases to see the priceless display of sparkling baubles that started as a Columbian Exposition exhibit in 1893. Clarita Nuñez, the Field's collection manager for physical geology, points out two items here that shouldn't be overlooked: "The fist-sized blue topaz from Brazil near the entrance and the opal carving of a sun god from Mexico are both especially beautiful," she says.
Make a left out of the exhibit, pick up the pace and head for the "Art Lacquer of Japan" display. These bottles and containers, which are carved from a poisonous resin, took years to make. Be sure to pay special attention to the nature-motifed stationery box on the left. Inscribed among the rocks and trees is a secret poem about the seasons.
1400 S Lake Shore Dr, 312-922-9410, www.fieldmuseum.org. For hours, admission and info on current special exhibitions.
What's with stoners and planetariums? Maybe it's the laser shows, the 3-D galaxy displays or the vastness of space that's, like, so intense, dude. If you're baked, or naturally feeling the flow, this tour won't harsh your mellow.
Enter on the main level at the "Our Solar System" area. Fire the paintball gun to simulate a meteor forming a crater. Hang out, man—there's more to see close by. Take a few steps straight ahead to see, and touch, a real meteorite. Imagine, this one-ton piece of nickel-iron came shooting down to Earth at ten miles per second and collided with the planet's surface, creating a 4,000-foot-wide crater in the middle of Arizona. To the left of the meteorite is the Great Scott Rock, a piece of the moon named after astronaut David Scott. If it seems to shimmer, that's not the weed talking—"the rock is a crystalline part of the moon's crust from the mountain region," says Adler astronomer Mark Hammergren. It does have an unearthly sparkle. Whoa.
From there, turn around and go downstairs to see a meteor that hit ground two years ago in Park Forest, about 30 miles south of Chicago. When the small fist-size chip on display crashed through the roof of Phil and Brenda Jones's house, it gouged a hole in the roof, drilled through the main floor and into the basement. Head back up the south stairs to the "Milky Way Galaxy." Grab the red-and-blue plastic glasses at the front of the 3-D Milky Way Theater and marvel at nebulae and globular clusters as they shoot at you in all directions.
Finish your visit by exiting through the Space Walk, a mirrored tunnel with sparkling lights that emulates the enormity of space, and just chill for a moment. If this is too much activity for your fried brain, spend 38 minutes in the StarRider Theater on the lower level at Sonic Vision, a "digitally animated alternative-music show," in—yes, stoners—the laserium, where you can sit back and watch what the Adler calls, "a sensory journey unlike any other." Sweet.
1300 S Lake Shore Dr, 312-922-STAR, www.adlerplanetarium.org. For hours, admission and info on current special exhibitions,
Museum of Science and Industry
above and beyond the submarine
Don't even think about signing on for another tour of duty in that damn sub. Instead, cruise these underappreciated attractions.
Three-hundred-sixty-four days a year (it's closed only on Christmas Day), busloads of wanna-be scientists of all ages descend upon this behemoth, leftover from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, to trek through 14 acres of hands-on exhibits. But in the rush to board the captured German U-505 submarine, descend into an authentically rendered coal-mine shaft or take in the 3,500-square-foot model-train exhibit, it's easy to overlook the smaller treasures along the way.
Start by circling back around from the admissions counter (in the great hall on the museum's lowest level) toward the "Pioneer Zephyr" exhibit for an up-close look at the sleek silver train that was the first to use hot air to burn diesel fuel. Its elegant design and top speed of 112.5 mph helped make rail transportation fashionable and revolutionized mail delivery in the 1930s, and it still comes off as pretty cool today. From there, it's up the escalator to the ground floor, where the Swiss Jollyball—a giant pinball machine that takes you on a tour of Switzerland—proves low-tech bells and whistles can still wow the crowds.
Head left to the Henry Crown Space Center to see the two spacecraft on loan to the museum: the Apollo 8 command module and the Aurora 7 Mercury space capsule. While you're there, hang around outside the Omnimax Theater to catch another eye-popping display through the glass window surrounding its projection room, as the massive reels of IMAX-format film (more than ten times the size of conventional film) are threaded for the theater's next screening.
Make a beeline back down the hall and upstairs to the main level, and stop at the Baby Chick Hatchery inside the "Genetics: Decoding Life" exhibit, which has been a fixture at the museum since 1954. It's nothing short of breathtaking to see an egg hatch before your eyes and watch a newborn chick's first minutes of life as it slowly struggles to its feet.
Check out an altogether different life form in the adjacent "Robots Like Us," a collection of retro robots and space toys that shows what folks in the past thought the future might be like. Come out the other end of "Robots," and you're at the 57th Street exit, ready for the rest of your day.
57th St and Lake Shore Dr, 773-684-1414, www.msichicago.org. For hours, admission, free days and info on current special exhibitions.
Come back for more
These special exhibits are worth another trip
The Art Institute of Chicago
“For Hearth and Altar: African Ceramics from the Keith Achepohl Collection,” through Feb 20 I “Girodet: Romantic Rebel,” Feb 11–Apr 30 I “Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work,” Jun 24–Sept 24 I “So the Story Goes: Photographs by Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann and Larry Sultan,” Sept Sept 16–Dec 3
“Invasive Species,” ongoing I Oceanarium Marine Mammal Presentations, ongoing I “Wild Reef—Sharks at the Shedd,” ongoing I “Lizards and the Komodo King,” opening in April
The Field Museum of Natural History
“Pompeii: Stories from an Empire,” through Mar 26 I “Dinosaur Dynasty: Discoveries from China,” through Apr 23 I “Transforming Tradition: Pottery from Mata Ortiz,” through May 31 I “The Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport,” Fri 27–Jun 4 I “Evolving Planet,” opens March 10 I “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” May 26–Jan 1, 2007 (tickets now on sale) I “Cheyenne Visions,” Jun 16–January, 2007 I “Eskimo and Inuit Carvings: Collecting Art from the Arctic,” Saturday, Jul 1–Jun 17, 2007
Sky shows: TimeSpace...Time Travel Only at the Adler, SonicVision, Journey to Infinity, Race to Edge of the Universe, Space... In Your Face! ongoing, see Museum listings for prices and times. I “Gemini 12,” opens July
Museum of Science and Industry
“U-505 Submarine,” ongoing I “Robots Like Us,” ongoing I “The Great Train Story,” ongoing I “Architecture: Pyramids to Skyscrapers,” through Feb 28 I “Game On 2.0,” Feb 3–Apr 30 I “Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius,” Apr 14–Sept 4 I “Frogs: A Chorus of Colors,” Jun 9–Jan 7, 2007