Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" at the Field Museum runs through September 7, 2014.
Photo: Max Herman
The story of the 1893 World's Fair is also the story of the Field Museum. Were it not for the Columbian Exposition 120 years ago, we would not have the world-class natural history institution that's now an inextricable part Chicago's identity, a top tourist draw and a valuable research resource. Local civic leaders, among the 25 million attendees (then 37 percent of the U.S. population) drawn to the fair over its six-month run, decided to acquire items displayed in some of the 65,000 exhibits. To commemorate the fair, which itself was honoring the 400th anniverary of Columbus's arrival, those businessmen and scientists established a museum in the building that now houses the Museum of Science and Industry. It was originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, and in 1894, the name was changed to the Field Columbian Museum, a nod to department store magnate Marshall Field's generous early contribution of $1 million.
This is the Field's genesis story, which is literally laid out in "Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair." Starting Friday and running through September 2014, the exhibit is essentially the Field conducting an anthropological survey of itself. To rediscover its roots, the museum has dug deep into its collection to show items rarely, if ever, on public view.
Adding greatly to the behind-the-scenes feel, the museum displays pieces as they are archived in the Field's storage areas. Animal skeletons, an array of intricately printed World's Fair tickets, instruments and theater props from the fair's Java Village, aboriginal weaponry, meteorites, fossils and some 200 other objects are propped on blocks of ethafoam or sit in acid-free cardboard archival storage boxes. The box containing an African shield bears a note intended for a museum preparator, "CAUTION: CENTRAL SHAFT IS LOOSE." A sea lion is posed in a plywood-framed crate, underscoring its mammoth size. Bags of coca leaves and cannabis seeds, and glass jars of oils—showed off at the fair by states and countries that wanted to tout their natural resources—bear yellowing, typewritten labels.
The motley collection and raw presentation could strike some viewers as slapdash curation. However, it's not excessive—the Field lets the seams show just enough to give museumgoers a feeling of unfettered access.
"Opening the Vaults" also offers a look at some of the Indiana Jones–ish characters who helped build the Field from the ground up after the World's Fair. A brontothere skull introduces you to Elmer Riggs, the Field paleontologist brought in following the fair to find fossils for the museum. A Manila-paper catalog tag hangs off of a leopard pelt, from the same big cat that the father of modern taxidermy, Carl Akeley, who joined the Field in 1896, encountered in Africa and strangled with his bare hands. The photo next to the skin shows Akeley, a bandaged badass, standing beside his kill.
As soon as I was satisfied that I had seen everything in "Opening the Vaults" during yesterday's media preview, the museum's librarian, Christine Giannoni, reminded me of a staggering fact: At any given time, only about one percent of the Field's collection of 25 million specimens and artifacts is on display. Thanks in large part to the surplus of priceless pieces collected during the World's Fair, the Field will always have something new to show us.