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Backstage pass at MSI: Opening the '80 at 80' exhibit

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

5:51 PM EDT, July 10, 2013

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It's always welcome when a major museum sticks a thumb into its vaults and pulls out various plums to share with the public. So much resides offstage at places such as the Field and the Museum of Science and Industry that it's like having auxiliary, hidden museums.

The MSI is lifting a curtain now to present 80 objects from the archives in a superb, compact exhibit titled "80 at 80."

The second "80" is for the institution's current birthday, but, really, round numbers aren't necessary. We'd be fine a few years from now with 83 at 83, just as 78 at 78 would probably have been compelling as well.

Visitors who've tried to cover the vast, Hyde Park museum in one day may find it hard to believe there's still more. But another 35,000 artifacts are shelved in storage rooms there.

The objects chosen for the exhibit represent a kind of abbreviated history of technology. They include a dog treadmill from 1872, used not to keep canines svelte but to provide power, and Google Glass, acquired just before the exhibit opened and useful for generating blog posts and we're-not-yet-sure-what-else.

There's a giant, talking Paul Bunyan head that longtime visitors will remember, some with a shiver of fear as the eyes shift from side to side. And there's an anatomical mannequin from the museum's collection that is, almost literally, a rock star: It appeared, with wings added, on the cover of Nirvana's "In Utero" album.

You can trace advances here. There are a 1904 Lambert 3 typewriter and an Apple computer display from 2000, a 1938 record player and one from 1965. A 1933 underwater telephone contrasts with a mod, yellow 1960s home phone.

"We looked at things that really expressed creativity and ingenuity, things that are part of the museum's DNA," said Kathleen McCarthy, curator of the exhibit and the museum's director of collections.

Many of these objects help define the museum's history. A painting of the Palace of Fine Arts from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition is, of course, also a painting of the museum from before it settled on a career path. The building first housed what would become the Field, before it moved north, then its purpose shifted to science after Sears founder Julius Rosenwald donated the money to start the museum, which officially opened in 1933.

Graphite from the first controlled nuclear reaction at the nearby University of Chicago in 1942 nods to the museum's role as a meeting place for the Manhattan Project. Salvador Dali sketched the museum, then added colorful dots, in 1972; that work is in "80 at 80."

Industrial giants are on hand, from GM (synchro-mesh transmission) to GE (a 1948 television) to Velodyne (a contemporary LIDAR sensor demonstrating the technology that self-driving cars use). But so is an artist's quirky, utterly charming video installation: Maarten Baas' "Sweepers Clock" shows men keeping time by sweeping garbage piles laid out in the shape of clock hands.

All of these pieces are explained via another new piece of technology, this one proving invaluable to museums: the pedestal-mounted iPad.

It would be easy to buzz right past "80 at 80" on the way to Science Storms or the model railway. But it's also easy to find, located in rooms on either side as you get off the first escalator up from the Entry Hall ticket-buying area.

And it's well worth spending an hour or more in the two rooms.

Not only can you take a crash course in the march of technology, but you'll be seeing items that might get tucked away again until another birthday brings them into the light.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

'80 at 80'

When: Through Feb. 2.

Where: Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago. msichicago.org, 773-684-1414.

Tickets: Included in general admission ($18 adult, $11 ages 3-11); 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org