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)

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.

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