Field Museum shines a light on the Exposition

Staff Writer

For six months 120 years ago Hyde Park was the center of global attention.
The Field Museum recreates the Columbian Exposition that took place in Jackson Park in its newest temporary exhibit, “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.”

The exhibit opened on Friday and will remain at the museum through Sept. 7, 2014.

The exhibit displays 200 artifacts that came to the museum after the World’s Fair closed. Many of them have not been on display since that time.

In the six months the fair filled Jackson Park with white Beaux Arts buildings and some of the first electric lights the public had ever seen, 25 million visitors filed through the park.

Visitors saw the introduction of companies and products that are household names today, like Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Juicyfruit and Pabst Blue Ribbon. They also were able to view exotic animals through the relatively new art of taxidermy.

After the fair closed thousands of items were donated to the Columbian Museum of Chicago, which occupied the former Fine Arts building. It was originally tasked with the purpose of “accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history.”

In 1905, Marshall Field donated $1 million ($26 million in 2013 dollars) and the institution was renamed the Field Museum of Natural History. In 1921, it moved out of the Fine Arts building and the Museum of Science and Industry later moved into the same space.

Visitors saw exotic displays, like the double coconut-turned canteen, a 20-foot-long paper mache squid, articulated animal skeletons and gems.

Some of the items in the museum’s collection that date back to the Fair are still a mystery. One artifact on display is listed as the switch that turned on all the electric lights, with the caveat that museum officials don’t know that for sure.

The fair also brought non-Europeans to the fair to live and work as exotic caricatures of their cultures; a view the museum acknowledges would be offensive by modern standards.

The Javanese villagers played music for visitors on their traditional gamelan, an ensemble of percussion and stringed instruments. Visitors can create their own virtual gamelan using a giant interactive touch screen.

Artifacts that came to the museum after the fair ended are still being studied today. A pair of Peruvian mummies still in their wrappings have been CT-scanned recently. Small trinkets were discovered and, using 3D printing, researchers were able to recreate the trinkets without ever removing a stitch from the mummies’ wrappings.

“Opening The Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair” runs through Sept. 7, 2014, at the Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive.

The Field Museum and the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) have teamed up to offer tours of the 1893 World’s Fair site at Jackson Park through Jan. 5.
The bus tours will run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets are $48 for adults, $42 for children aged 3 to 11 and $45 for students and seniors. Ticket prices include admission to the exhibit.

Tourgoers will take a bus from the Field Museum to Jackson Park to see the only remaining building from the fair, the Museum of Science and Industry, as well as Wooded Island and the “Golden Lady” Statue of the Republic. The tour will be lead by CAF docents.