Science and showmanship in glorious balance at MSI

From simulated storms to a WWII submarine, the Museum of Science and Industry has plenty to see

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The Museum of Science and Industry lives, vibrantly, in the last remaining building from Chicago's storied World's Fair of 1893.

Then, it was the Palace of Fine Arts, made of more permanent stuff than the other, now-vanished "White City" buildings to protect the artwork inside. After that, it housed the Field Museum of Natural History before that institution moved from the South Side to Grant Park.

It's a fitting history because now, in 2014, as the MSI proclaims itself the "largest science center in the Western Hemisphere" this is one overstuffed curio cabinet of a building — 14 acres of interior space, a unit of measurement that makes the big, climb-aboard John Deere tractor and combine in the lower level seem especially appropriate.

There are elements of art in the MSI (Disney drawings, a video installation) and touches of natural history (live baby chicks, a terrific exploration of the human body). And there are, especially, lingering traces of the World's Fair.

Think of the MSI as a high-toned carnival midway — more learning, fewer barkers, but lots and lots and lots of things to see and do — and you'll have it about right.

Every day in the classical rotunda at the center of the museum, live science shows see perky voiced young adults make oxygen-filled balloons go boom. "I have some explosive gas, if that sounds fun," a presenter tells the crowd.

Up above, the inscribed quote from a past director — "Science discerns the laws of nature. Industry applies them to the needs of man." — spells out the mission in more stately terms. But "science" and "industry" are broad terms, and the museum, which opened its doors in 1933 with backing from Sears, Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald, interprets them broadly.

The "Body Worlds" shows have made their Chicago stops here, forcing visitors to ask whether these preserved corpses are more about science or showmanship. Other touring exhibitions happily celebrate people who were, to be sure, industrious, even if they were not particularly scientific: Charles Schulz, Jim Henson, Dr. Seuss and, currently, Walt Disney.

But there is celebrity in the permanent collection too. A human anatomical model from the museum's vast stores is on display; it looks just like the one on the cover of Nirvana's "In Utero" LP for a very good reason. Colleen Moore's "Fairy Castle," newly restored this year, is an elaborate, expensively furnished dollhouse crafted by the silent-film star.

And then there is the other stuff. So much other stuff. Here, there's a lunar module from NASA, there an old-time circus wagon. Here, there's Craig Breedlove's 540-mph Spirit of America car, there, as if to accentuate how big this museum is, a full-size German World War II submarine, the U-505, accepting visitors daily.

Also indoors is a bisected Boeing 727, its cabin open for people who can't get enough of the glamour of commercial air travel. At least there are no surcharges on this airline. (The legroom between seats is from a different era, as well.)

In so big a place, not everything makes perfect sense. Outside the high-tech Omnimax movie theater, with its surround sound and domed screen, and nestled in among exhibits that otherwise treat space exploration, you'll find a weird little alcove with a handful of scale-model U.S. Navy vessels. How did grandpa's retirement hobby end up here?

In the space exhibits, the signage still treats NASA's Constellation program and Ares V rockets as current; Congress scuttled them in 2010.

Yet just when you think this museum gets too easily distracted from its core mission, or is too big to stay on top of everything going on, you encounter something like the Fast Forward hall, touting a broad and fascinating range of cutting-edge science.

Or you enter into the "Science Storms" exhibition, which is among the best museum displays I've ever seen. It works as art, a stunning, two-story visual assemblage of avalanche, tornado, rainbow and lightning bolt, to name only the highest-profile components. It works as science, teaching the principles behind such phenomena by showing as much as telling. And it works on the level of interactivity, a quality museums all strive for but rarely achieve in so dynamic yet unforced a manner.

You could spend half your MSI time in "Science Storms," and not a minute of it would be wasted.

Similarly, if you have little kids, they may just get so hooked on "The Idea Factory" children's play land that that becomes your day. More power to the members, or those coming on the free days for Illinois residents (most common in September and January; check msichicago.org), for not feeling they have to cover every square inch to get their money's worth.

Time is an issue. "We only have, like, a half an hour. Pick up the pace," one visitor said to her companion recently. More than any other Chicago museum, this is an all-day place. Twice, the museum had a contest winner living on the premises for a month at a time and blogging about it, and part of the reason for it was that the place is so hard to take in during short stays.

The MSI is not a research institution, like the Field Museum or the area's zoos and aquariums. The science that's done here is for sharing with the public (and with science educators, who are active users). There are demonstrations taking place always, such as the thrice-daily dissection of a cow's eye.

And the museum is almost wholly an indoor experience. That's too bad, because it's a gorgeous temple of a building, with beautiful inscribed metal doors on the majestic but little-used front steps and a lovely lagoon right out the back door. And there are lovely gardens on the east side, between the submarine and the movie theater, that could easily be opened to allow visitors to stroll and take some air.

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