Monday, December 02, 2013

Rediscovering the 1893 World's Fair at the Field Museum

Devil in the White City? I devoured Erik Lawson's true tale of a serial killer amidst the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair shortly after it came out, in 2002. At that point I'd lived in Chicago for almost 8 years, half of which I'd spent at the University of Chicago.
Have you read

Lawson's book put the midway in Midway Plaisance, a wide strip of park and roadways that separated the main campus from a few of its northernmost buildings--including those where I took fine art classes and another where I made $8 an hour filing papers for a graduate department.

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair was a spectacle quite unlike anything we can imagine seeing today. Bigger than SXSW, the Chicago Auto Show and CES rolled into one, the World's Fair attracted an astonishing 27 million admissions, including 700,000 on a single day. Two hundred buildings were erected for the fair and an enormous Ferris wheel could be seen from miles around. It was a good 100 feet taller than the one at Navy Pier today! But more important than its sheer size was the diversity of the exhibits. There were taxidermied animals from around the world, just-discovered fossils, new inventions, advances in industry--and most shocking to those of us today--entire villages reconstructed and populated with native peoples from around the globe.

What I didn't know until recently is that the Field Museum was founded to commemorate the Fair and that museum's original collections consisted of items originally displayed there. Many of those curiosities are now out of the vaults and on exhibit. I took Zoe with me to check it out and test drive the museum's new app.

Being able to see items that once enthralled the masses at the Fair is a real treat. Zoe and I particularly liked the stuffed sea lion and model giant squid (look up; it's hanging from the ceiling), the Peruvian mummy (you can look inside it via interactive CT scan) and the photos of the "primitive" villages brought to the fair for Westerners to gawk at. Impressively, an Inuit group tired of being on display in their fur coats in the Chicago heat and walked off exhibit only to set up their own, more profitable independent showcase right outside the Fair grounds.

Screenshot of the app
We also test-drove the brand new Field Museum app, which you can download and connect to using the free wifi within the museum. Zoe, fan of all electronics, commandeered my phone and used the app as kind of scavenger hunt list.

"Look Mom, here's the Accounting Ledger! What's an Accounting Ledger?"

As wonderful as the World's Fair special exhibit is, it ended far too soon. So we exited through the gift shop and decided to look explore the rest of the museum. Periodically we'd see an exhibit with a QR code and we'd use the built-in scanner within the app. No dice. Even though the QR codes were green and looked for all intents like they'd work with the app, we kept getting error messages. Finally I scanned the QR codes with a generic scanner. That worked better, launching a cluttered but information-packed mobile website with additional content and videos. Still, it was surprising that the two functions couldn't be better linked.

Oils and preserved specimens, in their original vials

Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair is on display now at the Field Museum and will remain open through September 7, 2014. It is a ticketed exhibit, with a cost over and above regular admission. I recommend going right when the museum opens, at 9am, and parking nearby in the Soldier Field parking lot. Public transit is also an option as buses serve the museum campus. Use Google Maps for exact transit instructions.

I was selected for this opportunity by Clever Girls Collective, however all content and opinions expressed here are my own.