Need a skeleton or artifact? Ask the Field

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Chicago Tribune journalists Chris Jones, Nina Metz, and Mark Caro on the Field Museum's first ever web series, which debuted earlier this month. (Posted on: August 27, 2013)

There's this old joke, or there could be: How many art teachers does it take to load a life-size T. rex skull into the back of a rented pick-up truck?

The answer, on a recent afternoon at the Field Museum, was "two, plus a few other people who were around the loading dock and could guide the plaster cast up into place."

The punchline needs work. But it was, nonetheless, a remarkable thing to see people taking valuable-looking scientific material out of the Field with full approval of those who work there.

Ed Pino and Nikki Jarecki, who teach at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood, plan to use the replica dinosaur skull as the focal point of various art projects over the next several weeks.

"Oh my gosh. I'm so excited to see my students and how excited they'll be about it," Jarecki said. "I think it's the most interesting still-life one could imagine in a middle school."

The skull — which many at the museum think is a replica of the head of its famed Sue skeleton, but is, it turns out, the cast of another T. rex altogether — is part of the N.W. Harris Learning Collection, one of the most unusual and unsung lending libraries you will find.

Located on the building's bottom floor, in the old Hall of Fishes, the Harris will also lets members take out a statuesque stuffed beaver, a box full of shoes of the world, a diorama showing two prairie pocket gophers burrowing upward to break the soil's surface, and about 1,000 other objects or collections of objects.

The roomful of scientific artifacts was developed as a tool for schools but is open to anyone who buys a membership. Membership packages are good for 12 months and include up to 40 items borrowed in a year for $100, or 10 items for $50. They can be reserved, via phone or the online catalog, and there are evening hours and parking when loading. (Full details at harris.fieldmuseum.org).

One of the relative handful of people outside of the educational community who does use it, staffers said, is Trib Nation manager James Janega, who said he "stumbled on" the collection when the newspaper was co-hosting an event in the adjacent theater.

"When I asked if you had to be from a school or an institution to sign up, (assistant Sara Henderson) said anyone could do it," Janega recalled. "'I could list my institution as 'cool parent?'" They said yes. And that is what I filled out on my card."

He and his wife, Sarah, have taken out items ranging from multicultural math to frogs and toads for their kids, ages 3 and 7, and Sarah Janega recently borrowed a glass-encased box containing an old bird, a coot, in order to have something appropriate on hand at her father's birthday party.

Another member, administrator Lindsey Snyder said, checked out the snowy owl so she could tell her 11-year-old nephew, at a party for him, that he'd been accepted to Hogwarts, the school of magic in the "Harry Potter" books in which owls are messengers.

Most creatures for teachers

But more typical, about 90 percent of the users, are the teachers, a steady stream of whom were coming in Tuesday afternoon and wheeling out "experience boxes" of materials about, for example, Great Lakes plant diversity, geology of Illinois, rocks and minerals, and Lewis and Clark.

All that, plus a couple of more items, was headed for the car of Leslie Swain-Store, who teaches 4th-to-7th grade science at CPS's Keller Regional Gifted Center in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood.

"So wait until the kids show up tomorrow and this is all set up in the classroom," she said. "It's going to be an explosion!"

Kindergarten teacher Audrey Benes, from Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen, talked about the importance of having "actual visuals" in class. "We're going to do a fish this time," she said, "and also an experience box with trees."

Despite the busy Tuesday afternoon, Snyder — who trained as a teacher, not a librarian, and has been at the Field since she was a teen volunteer — said the collection could stand to be more popular. Membership is back up over 300 after an 18-month closure and updating that finished in 2012, but that's compared with membership in the Field Museum of 47,000.

And after the renovation this year of the nearby James Simpson Theater to show 3D movies at the museum, there has been more serendipitous foot traffic into the Harris.

People are drawn by the T. rex skull, usually out in the hall with an "open" sign between its teeth, or by the massive, beautiful old Bahamian fish diorama that features coral and great white sharks in action and occupies almost an entire wall of the library.

But still, Snyder said, "We're like a hidden gem."

Most of the collection is about 800 exhibit cases, usually with a bird, animal or plant mounted inside like a miniature diorama. After the dinosaur — the only item for which there is an additional fee ($200 for two weeks) — the biggest exhibits are the beaver, a juvenile bald eagle and a turkey, already reserved for the next two Thanksgivings.

Taken out much more rarely are the many plants. "A lot of the botanical specimens are really beautiful," Snyder said, "but there's less 'wow' factor with showing a plant versus showing a taxidermied raccoon."

The other portion is the 65 collection boxes, which exist in multiple copies and contain materials related to a theme, packed together and meant to be handled. The two most popular are the animal coverings box, including a snakeskin, frequently replaced, a raccoon pelt and a cicada exoskeleton, and the hominid evolution box, whose residents include, in replica, the skull of the famous early human ancestor "Lucy."

Program dates to 1911

The boxes were a 1970s addition, Snyder said, but the fact that the storage vessels for the collection boxes are bankers' boxes is historically appropriate. Norman Wait Harris, the founder of Harris Trust and Savings Bank (now part of BMO Harris Bank), endowed the collection in 1911 with the intention of supplementing Chicago education. The original title was the N.W. Harris Chicago Public School Extension of the Field Museum, said Snyder, and for much of the first half of the 20th century, a truck circulated the materials between hundreds of Chicago schools.

More recently, the focus has been as a lending library, and it was opened to non-educators within the last two decades, Snyder said. During the recent closure, one of the tasks was to pare down the printed material and "really focus in on the objects," Snyder said.

In redoing lengthy descriptions of the objects as something closer to bullet-pointed flash cards, "we went through 30 football-field lengths of laminating film," said Snyder.

"It's always beneficial for teachers to work with concrete objects," especially in multiple-language classrooms, said Henderson, the assistant, herself a former teacher.

Said Snyder, "It stretches your brain."

Perusing the "stacks" with Snyder, who does not lack enthusiasm for the materials in her care, is a treat. "You can kind of trace the history of pedagogy," she said, pointing to a rash of industrial items added in the 1940s. She pulled one out. "This is one of my favorites," she said. "This is called 'Beef By-products,' and this is sponsored by Swift and Co."

The annual rhythms of teaching are also in evidence on the shelves, she said. Now, for example, the ancient Egyptian and Native American materials tend to be checked out because ancient civilizations is typically taught at the start of the school year.

Sometimes stuff breaks

She was back in the repair area where broken items — again, they are meant to be handled — are repaired. There is a modest charge for fixing things, usually less than $10, she said, and something that needs to be replaced will be charged at 20 percent of its replacement cost, which Snyder calls a "co-pay."

On a table, awaiting surgery, are a few copies of an apparently easily broken item, possibly even a cursed item.

"I'll never buy a copy of that Egyptian god ever again," said Snyder, referring to the fragile deity named Khnum from the Life Along the Nile box. "I'm going to find the crocodile-headed one."

Some of the material is hand-me-downs from the greater museum upstairs, but most has been created or purchased expressly for the Harris Collection. The T. rex, it turns out, is a replica of the head of one owned by Museum of the Rockies in Montana. Before joining the Harris, it was used as a guide to help in the reconstruction of Sue, whose head was pretty badly damaged, Snyder explained.

Plastic-wrapping a dinosaur

And on Tuesday, the Pilsen art teachers were there to take it out into the big world.

"I hope this fits through my door," Pino said.

He has been using the Harris for about 20 years, he said, and is hoping to win funds to pay for the dinosaur through the local Oppenheimer Family Foundation Teacher Incentive Grant program. "Otherwise, I'm out maybe 600 bucks," he said, between the rental of the skull and the truck and the purchase of photo paper for his students' projects and a giant roll of plastic wrap.

Before leaving the library, he and Snyder carefully wrapped the former predator in plastic, not to keep in freshness, but to help protect the painted plaster fabrication on its journey.

They and Jarecki wheeled it through the museum's back halls on a big hand truck, moved down a level in a freight elevator and brought it out into the daylight, where the U-Haul pick-up was waiting.

There was a pause and some head scratching.

"You don't really think about how you're going to get it in the truck," Jarecki said.

But David Mendez, a taller-than-average museum worker, was among those dragooned into helping lift it.

"No problem," Jarecki said, as she helped slide the skull into place. "Dinosaur schminosaur."

Then there was more head scratching over how to pack it safely in the truck bed, alongside the heavyweight cart on which it usually rests. Ropes? Blankets?

Mendez stepped in and arranged things, artfully using the weight of the cart to wedge both skull and cart into place. It was an impressive use of available space and materials.

What department are you in? someone asked him.

"Traveling exhibits," said Mendez.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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