Field Museum: Packing in science and much, much more

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The only way Chicago's Field Museum could have had a better benefactor is if there had been a generous turn-of-the-last-century tycoon named "Natural History."

Considering the unlikelihood of that, "Field" will do. Marshall Field was a retailing mogul whose department store was a Chicago icon until Macy's swallowed it up this century like, say, a T. rex gobbling a slightly smaller dinosaur.

But "Field," of course, also describes the place where a lot of the museum's scientists do their work, whether hunting fossils in Madagascar, surveying the living landscape in the Amazon rain forest or digging up ancient artifacts in Greece.

Indeed, Field Museum is so apt a name that the institution in 1994 dropped "of Natural History" from the title it uses for public purposes. Why belabor the point?

Entering the Field's stately wedding-cake of a building at the south end of Grant Park, there's no chance of misunderstanding where you are.

From the first step inside, the place screams "natural history" — and announces its claim on greatness within that realm — through three monumental artifacts.

Toward the south end of the almost open-air central atrium that is Stanley Field Hall are a pair of red cedar totem poles from British Columbia. Soaring 20 feet high, they hint at the museum's cornucopia of items from peoples throughout the history of the Americas.

In the center are a pair of massive African elephants, stuffed and mounted in a fighting stance in 1909 by the museum's own taxidermy genius and revolutionary, Carl Akeley. From birds to bison, artfully stuffed animals, seen from much closer than a zoo will let you, are a strength of the collection.

And then, at the north end, there is a dinosaur whose name and seemingly ticked-off attitude bring to mind a line from a 1960s Johnny Cash hit: "My name is Sue. How do you do?"

Sue, "the world's largest, most complete and best preserved" T. rex skeleton ever found, was unveiled at the Field in 2000 after the museum, with help from McDonald's and Disney, won an auction for her at a mere $8.3 million.

While Cash was singing about "A Boy Named Sue" who was none too happy about it, the dinosaur named Sue is, in fact, of indeterminate sex. She gets her name (and the gender of her customary pronoun) from her discoverer, Sue Hendrickson, who found her in the Hell Creek formation of South Dakota in 1990.

Sue roams, in a sense, everywhere in the Field. She's on T-shirts and in a 3-D movie. She has her own gift shop up on the second floor, and an instant plastic molding machine in the basement will let you take home a hot, smelly simulation.

But seeing the actual Sue, posed on a sort of stylized land form, visible from all sides and seeming to interact, in a way, with the big elephants behind her, is worth every penny you'll pay in admission all by itself. Just as T. rex was a top predator in its time, this is a top museum piece.

In a neat touch, Sue is presented on the museum's main floor with minimal information. The skeleton speaks — practically roars — for itself. Climb a flight of stairs to an alcove above for more details on the animal and its discovery, and to see Sue's actual, 600-pound skull. The head proved too heavy to mount on the display animal without intrusive supports, so what you see downstairs is a replica.

In between the Sue skull and an artist's sculptural rendition of what that head would have looked like when alive is the entrance to one of the finest museum exhibitions in Chicago.

"Evolving Planet" traces the story of life on Earth, from 4 billion years ago to now. It is not a recommended stop on the list of field trips for schools that teach creationism. "The Human Story Begins" 8 million years ago, a sign says. "Scientists agree on two key points: humans evolved from an ape ancestor and they evolved through the same unpredictable process as every other living thing." The boldface is the museum's. The assertion of the primacy of science is unmistakable.

Evolving Planet resonates for its ability to put the story of life in an understandable scientific and historical context, right up until the present day when, a sign informs, we are in the midst of the planet's sixth mass extinction event. (Enjoy your visit.)

Perhaps more impressive is the way the galleries weave items from the Field's collection into the storytelling. Skeletons of extinct behemoths like the giant ground sloth or short-faced bear loom over passersby. At the center of the exhibition, as a kind of turning point before the age of mammals like ourselves, is the Dinosaur Hall, dense with specimens.

The dinosaur room is at once contemporary and historical, a balance the Field often achieves. Note the use on the walls of the prehistoric-life paintings by the famed museum muralist Charles R. Knight. The painting in that gallery showing a T. rex facing off against a Triceratops is as influential a dinosaur image as has been made.

The Field is every bit as massive on the inside as it looks from outside: There are 350,000 square feet of public space.

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