5:53 PM EDT, October 23, 2013
In this age of consumer goods shipped readily from China and real-time video chats conducted with friends in Africa, it is difficult to imagine how stunning the World's Columbian Exposition must have been during its run.
For six months in Jackson Park, fragments and organisms from the known and, to many, unknown world packed a 600-acre exhibition that ranged from scientifically dispassionate to unabashedly commercial to crassly exploitative.
But the 1893 World's Fair fit the tenor of the times, and of the city. It showcased a rebuilt, no longer charred Chicago, heralded an age of scientific advancement that featured evolution and the electric light bulb, and entranced a populace that, it is said, mortgaged their homes to attend.
In a country of 67 million people, the fair was seen by more than 25 million.
And now, beginning Friday, many more can have a fresh look at it. One of the great achievements of the Field Museum's first-rate new exhibition, "Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair," is the feeling it gives for the event in its context.
You walk through these galleries of World's Fair items plucked from the Field's own storerooms — vials of foreign oils and chunks of island-grown trees, a giant stuffed squid on the ceiling and a sea lion in a shipping crate — and you want to have been there. To a surprising degree, you sense what being there might have been like, as freshly filled display cases of the era — wonderful old, polished-wood and glass boxes — are juxtaposed with giant photographs from the fair.
Concerned with the perils of collecting and posing specimens, with the minutiae of ticket-selling and electric wiring, and with 19th-century cultural curiosity and insensitivity, this is a show for people who read "The Devil in the White City," Erik Larson's 2003 nonfiction bestseller, and liked the World's-Fair-development portions way more than the serial-killer segments.
In one fine tableau, a picture from a World's Fair gallery, stretching from floor almost to ceiling, shows an enormous octopus — billed then as a "devil fish" — mounted above a stuffed wooly mammoth. And right above you in the Field's own exhibition space hangs that very octopus.
Elsewhere, museum staffers have crafted little movies of Columbian Exposition scenarios, projecting themselves, in period costumes, onto old fair photographs. The people move and the flags wave and the water ripples, and the effect, although modest by Hollywood standards, is, here, a bit of a wonder itself.
The exhibition, the second in what ought to be an unending "Opening the Vaults" series (the first, "Mummies," ran for a much shorter period in 2012), proves that an institution of the Field's resources, scope and experience can make something in its own workrooms that packs more punch than most of the rent-a-shows that arrive in the backs of tractor-trailers.
In the gallery next door, for a few more months, is "Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence." Crafted primarily at New York's Museum of Natural History, it's an interesting and scientifically sound exhibition, even innovative in places.
But for a Chicago audience, and especially a Field Museum audience, "Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" is compelling. This is our history — one of the four stars in the Chicago flag signifies the fair — and our city playing a big role in the cultural history of the nation.
The Columbian Exposition had lasting repercussions. Among them, of course, were the introductions of Juicy Fruit, Cracker Jack and the Ferris Wheel. To the new show's credit, it doesn't dwell on these oft-discussed, near-cliches of World's Fair knowledge.
The fair's biggest-ever display of electricity (and its white buildings) gave birth to the nickname "White City" — and to Underwriters Laboratories. The company, a sponsor of the present-day exhibition, was started after the fair by the man insurance companies brought in to monitor its safety.
An operational definition of making no little plans, it helped make a national reputation for the architect Daniel Burnham, who, as Director of Works, led planning of the fairgrounds. It affected the arts in other ways, too: ragtime music was first widely heard there, the exhibition says, and its neoclassical architecture became the standard for municipalities nationwide.
Plus, the exhibition is not shy about reminding us, no place is better suited to tell this story, for the fair gave us the Field itself. It was organized during the Columbian Exposition, at first to preserve the memory of the grandiose event and retain many of its showpieces.
But it quickly changed into a natural history museum, moving first into the beaux-arts Palace of Fine Arts at the north end of the fairgrounds, the building that now houses the Museum of Science and Industry. The Field moved to its current, Grant Park home in 1921.
(The new show, meanwhile, has sparked its own technological advance. The Field is using it as the occasion to launch its new The Field Museum app for iOS and, "soon," for Android. The app is meant to augment information in the museum and, as more material is added, allow people to plan tours or explore the collection in unique ways — by size, for instance.)
The Field has the original ledger book from the fair on display. Even it is huge: six feet wide, opened up. The fair, it is estimated, cost $46 million to mount, about $1.2 billion in today's dollars.
A day ticket was 50 cents ($12), but the exposition featured a practice that vexes museum visitors to this day: There were separate charges, sometimes the same amount all over again, for special parts of the show, such as the fair's native villages, featuring people transplanted from their homelands to be "exotic" or "uncivilized."
And that, in one more historical tribute, is also true of the new World's Fair exhibition: It'll cost you $8 more than general admission. It's well worth it, though. While it was recommended visitors allow two weeks to take in the original fair, the current show is one you can see in just one day's visit, and should.
Where: Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive (312) 922-9410 fieldmuseum.org
'Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair'
When: Friday-Sept. 7, 2014
Tickets: $8 in addition to general admission ($23)
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