Exhibition Inquisition

The stuff you look at, but don't see.

I Went to Confirm What I Already Feared

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Field Museum

Let’s teach kids about the circle of life!

I felt the need to be a responsible journalist blogger and actually check this place out.  I’m not going to bash a museum for using sponsors (check previous post), but the Field Museum has struck me as a strange place since I came to Chicago.  As a natural history museum I’m unsure as to why they organize pay to have exhibitions about  pirates, mythical creatures, and Jacky O.  The mission of the Field Museum (courtesy of the Field’s website):

The Field Museum is an educational institution concerned with the diversity and relationships in nature and among cultures. It provides collection-based research and learning for greater public understanding and appreciation of the world in which we live. Its collections, public learning programs, and research are inseparably linked to serve a diverse public of varied ages, backgrounds and knowledge.”

Nowhere in this mission statement is the word exhibition mentioned; so why does the Field pay so much for these questionable shows?  One argument is that it gets people in the door and that the museum benefits financially from admissions from these shows.  But when admission fees don’t even cover the cost of the crap plastic unicorn, I begin to question the Field, and whether it is actually upholding its mission.

Gold is not free.

The pricey cost of admission was a major factor for why I chose to go on a Free Day.  Museums in Chicago are required by law to have offer 52 free days (12 of which are sponsored by Target), so I decided to take advantage of what the Field is required by law to do.  It’s hard as hell to figure out when these days are because the Field (shockingly) does not advertise them, but I finally found the free days on their webpage.  Also, general admission is free on these days; so don’t expect to be seeing pirates, dragons, or Gold, for free.  If you want to see the special exhibitions you have to pay.

So I didn’t get to see Gold (I kept saying “GOLD!” very dramatically all day long), but there are literally acres of other things to see in the Field Museum, and not just rocks and stuffed animals, although there is a lot of that too.

Holiday decorations—I was surprised they hadn’t put a Santa hat on Sue.

The first thing I saw was Sue.  She’s a T.Rex and she has a twitter.  The Field Museum paid major buckets of ducats to get her, and has since made a pretty penny off of her, from tours to insane merchandise (there is HelloKitty Sue merch). Sue is effing huge, and overshadows the adjacent warring African bull elephant tableau.

It’s hard to know where to begin in the Field, but my friends and I started with the Egyptian tomb which led into the Hall of African Mammals.  The Field museum rationalized this organization because, “Did you know, Egypt is in Africa?” For real there is a text panel that says this.  The rooms of stuffed animals were fun, I love stuffed animals.  Yes, this is a musty natural history museum tradition, but it’s also well loved.  The Field has also put showrooms full of couches all over the place, so if you get tired you can take a load off and watch the baby orangutans play, it’s almost like TV!—except they don’t move.   It’s not all fun and games though, there are some disturbing things happening with the stuffed animals.

This panda is dead, he is stuffed, and he had a name.

For example, there is this taxidermied panda, and we all know how I feel about pandas…and this panda has a name, Sue Lin. I didn’t like that this panda had a name, didn’t like that the label told the story of Sue Lin’s life in a zoo, then Sue Lin died, then Sue Lin was stuffed and put on display in the Field.  Call me crazy, but this is just too personal.

There is also some less disturbing stuff, like the short-beaked echidna.  There are these text panels around the museum that offer facts about the history of the museum, and one of them informed me that the display of Australian marsupials contains some of the original animals from the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The short-beaked echidna has an acquisition number 3. How cool is that!

Entrance to the less-civilized world of Pre-Columbian civilizations

I like to compare how displays of the same kinds of objects from Pre-Columbian cultures are displayed in natural history museums, compared to how they are presented in fine art museums.  LA’s Natural History Museum has a Visible Vault which contains the leftovers of the collection LACMA took when it succeeded.  The Visible Vault couldn’t be more different from LACMA’s Jorge Pardo designed display.  The Field’s Pre-Columbian display is massive and overwhelming, but has several elements that really shine. Like a video that explains through a fictionalized culture the pillars of civilization (faith, military, and money).   The entrance to this display is overly dramatic though; you enter through a curving hallway full of projections of a swamp and with audio of claps of thunder.  How does this mediation preface the information that follows?

OMG Shoes!

Back outside in the main hallway is a floor to ceiling display of shoes, just shoes.  The idea is to show that there are some things that unite all people across all of time.  One of the fundamental elements of the human condition is apparently stylish footwear.  From ancient Egyptian sandals, to Eskimo snow shoes, to ugly bridesmaid heels, to gogo boots, people love them their shoes.

There is a lot to see at the Field, so I can’t really cover it all in one post.  I didn’t even get to cover the Grainger Hall of Gems, the Hall of Jade, the rooms full of American Indian costumes, or the spooky high-ceilinged halls full of Alaskan totem poles.  There are also a lot more things to criticize believe me, but those too probably need another post.

“Research” scrutinizing the temporary exhibition halls.

One last fun thing for this post: There are two drastically different sets of sculptures in the Field.  The first set is actually part of the architecture of the museum.  In the main hall, up above on the second story, in each of the four corners, is a personification.  These four women, called the “Silent Guardians” were commissioned by the museum in 1915, from the artist Henry Hering.  The one pictured above holds a magnifying glass and represents Research.  The other silent guardians represent Record, Dissemination of Knowledge, and Science.  These four ladies are supposed to be representative of the museum’s mission…oh the mission again.

Can you find this sculpture’s erogenous zones?

The other set of sculptures aren’t a bunch of white broads in flowing togas.  The other series of sculptures are bronze ethnographic (read racist) depictions of “primitive peoples” created by Malvina Hoffman.  There is no sign explaining the original purpose of these works, nor anything apologetic. The only sign accompanying these horrid bronzes reads as follows: “Look all you want, but please don’t touch this sculpture.”  A brief glance at the sculptures reveals people don’t give a shit about these signs and are rubbing them a lot.  The bronzes have a dark patina, except in certain places were excessive touching has worn down to reveal the metallic layers beneath.  The sculpture of a female pygmy from Madagascar has clearly been getting a lot of action; her nipples are practically blinding they’ve been rubbed so much.

– H.I.

P.S. Did you know that a group of porcupine is called a PRICKLE of porcupine?—See, this blog can actually be educational sometimes.

This guy also inspired my current haircut.

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