I love giving tours of The Field Museum. After two hours, those visitors who are neither bored nor exhausted continue with me until a point of mutual despair that we will never fully cover the interstices and complexities of this marvelous structure.
I like to start with a catwalk view of the Chicago lakefront from the 4th floor roof. First gazing northward to the softball fields where Lollapalooza annually appears, to the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, to the wall of buildings north of Grant Park and eastward along Navy Pier out to the pumping station, back to the breakwater looking at the boats in the appropriate season in Monroe Harbor, Buckingham Fountain when it’s flourishing, down Lake Shore Drive, out to the Shedd Aquarium, over to the Adler--all with the flag furrowing in the breeze--and then south to the black Jumbotron at Soldier Field, with a quick glance over to our solar installation and a look upward at the Daniel Burnham terracotta fringe of the wall.
Then starts the tour and the general rule I abide by is: if your door is open and the light is on, you are accessible to a conversation--many of which are extended--with our visitors. The fourth floor is an endless source of complexity and amazement to me--from our developers who are fabulous storytellers; the international tours of Field exhibits—from Idaho Falls to Japan to Dubai; to the mount shop where the precision and artistry of mount making never ceases to amaze me; to the design loft where concepts are translated into 2D and 3D images that hang together artistically to form the structure of our exhibition program. And then to the carpentry shop where these ideas and designs are translated into structures--the smell of the sawdust; the high volume of the music blaring; the precision; the back and forth and cooperative process of creation; the pace of work; the presence of CAD and CAM--what a “wow” way to start a tour. A visit to Ray Leo’s office with his 3x5 index cards as a way of keeping track of everything and the real pride of individuals and the work they do as they repeatedly transform this museum. During my time here, every exhibition—save one—has been delivered on time and on budget. What a record for Exhibitions!
Then we go down to the academic departments and depending on the visitor interest, plunge into zoology, botany, geology, anthropology or some combination thereof, to have cameo visits to the collections; the birds, the meteorites, the pre-Columbian Americas, the herbarium, the liverworts, the maps, the rare books in the Library, the frozen tissues, the skins, the soft tissues, the skeletons; the rows of case after case after case; the ability of the collections managers to locate the desired specimen by going directly to the cabinet and to the individual drawer where stored; the relentless addition to the collections and whatever may be unwrapped that day or in process; the herbarium sheets, the ready reference guides, the digital image of type specimens; the ancient toy chariots from Kish; the drawer of birds including the extinct Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and probably extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The visits to the hidden curatorial offices; the data entry of new specimens coming in; the digital photography; the restoration of Andean pottery; the labeling of specimens to go into the K-EMu database; the excitement of the scientist describing something new, something unexpected; the glances at the equipment the scanning electron microscopes, the mass spectrometer, ground penetrating RADAR: gene sequences, cryogenic storage units, all the stuff of modern laboratories probing the secrets of evolution and Earth history. The fingerprint ID required to access the most precious of our collections--the secret drawers of Bill Stanley and his increasing sizes of flying squirrels; Christine Nezgoda's pride at the herbarium sheets of type specimens; the laboratory space provided for botany as result of the new lightwell in-fill and the compactorization of cabinets; Tyana Wachter's library of Robin Foster’s images of neo-tropical flowering plants; Bob Martin’s wall of hominid skulls; the books, the test tubes, the microscopes, the notebooks, the computers, the cameras, the enormous investment of equipping a modern research complex.
The excitement of Corrie Moreau’s laboratory, packed with young investigators who will be the future of natural science; the wonder of Pete Makovicky and Nate Smith and their dinosaur fossils from Antarctica; the brilliant expositions of Olivier Rieppel on the history of science and on the controversies about how the turtle got its shell, and whether snakes had legs; a visit to Lance Grande’s office with a picture outside of Lance excavating in Wyoming--done by John Weinstein--showing the range of habitat once tropical now semi-desert. The image in the ECCo office from satellite of the Bolivian rainforest intact next to the destroyed Brazilian forest converted to agricultural crops and grazing; the cartoons of Dan Brinkmeyer as ways of illustrating to indigenous peoples the complexity of scientifically-based conservation; the orderliness of Thorsten Lumbsch’s office and laboratory, and the semi-controlled plethora of papers and photographs in Doug Stotz’s office (we don’t’ give awards for clean offices). The central anthropology lab with Ruth Norton and her colleagues processing everything in and out, working on the conservation of ceramics of paper, of metal, of textiles, of clay to ensure their continued stability on for another century; the sign that conveys that “this is not a dinosaur laboratory.” The depth of the scientific issues and importance of the issues that our colleagues are working on: hominid evolution and the relationship to Neanderthals, the absence or presence of new hominid species, the merging of fossil and molecular information to zero in an age of excavated fossils, the philosophy of “what is a species” and the nature of speciation; and then the communication of complex ideas—Lance Grande’s new book and new Hall of Gems; Cheryl Bardo’s conversion of exhibitions into children’s books. Constraining my enthusiasm is often difficult as I stand behind visitors urging open communication from our scientists and, in some cases, shutting conversation off when it’s time for the tour to move on.
And our growth enterprise—ECCo—with 50,000 square miles of rainforest protected in the Andes-Amazon in partnership with Peru, Bolivia, Equador and Peru. 25 rapid inventories with Field scientists teamed with local environmentalists. And in Chicago with anthropologists and biologists teamed to conserve and expand local enclaves of woodlands and prairies.
And then down to the second floor with the laboratories we’ve constructed to share science with our visitors: the McDonald’s Fossil Prep Lab, the Pritzker/ Rice Molecular Systematics Lab, and the Regenstein Anthropology Lab where J.P. Brown can often be found working on his CT scans of Egyptian mummies, or conserving fragile plant material in ceremonial masks from New Guinea. Erica Zahnle’s ability to communicate over the loudspeaker to school groups on the activity that’s taking place in the laboratory; Kevin Feldheim stories of intra-uterine cannibalism among lemon sharks and the parthenogenesis of sharks; the ability to take our behind-the-scenes scientific research and make it public by knocking out a wall and moving a collection, and the frustration that we have so much to share and limited resources to communicate the wealth of 25 million specimens. The thoroughness of Connie Van Beek’s removal of fossil from rock in the prep lab; the stories of each of our colleagues of their lives outside of the Museum. The ability to introduce new exhibits—the Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth; the Searle Lounge; the Brooker Gallery; Evolving Planet; the Ernst & Young 3D Theater; the Tang Hall of China (yet to come); the Malott Hall of Jades; the Grainger Hall of Gems; the Comer Hall; the Maori Meeting House; and the Marae Gallery outside of the Maori House, providing the opportunity to show small exhibits focused on contemporary challenges such as the destruction from 9/11, Burmese rubies, and Malaria.
And then to the first floor with the Levin and Holleb Halls that house our temporary exhibitions where we’ve had the opportunity to bring the world to Chicago. An ongoing curriculum of several exhibitions each year--both those that we borrow from other institutions, and the ones that we originate here and send on the road to international locations. The new Halls of the Ancient Americas telling the story of the complex immigration and societal developments that characterized the peopling of the Americas prior to the European arrival; in many ways a story similar to the one told in the book 1491. Working with Jonathan Haas on the design of the exhibit, bringing in anthropologists from UIC and the University of Chicago, compressing and telling an enormously complicated story in a series of dioramas and interactives with hundreds of specimens packed into the exhibit halls.
When I arrived we had a small cafeteria and a McDonald’s restaurant. We also had a retail store that was substantially underperforming. By moving the store--under the direction of Laura Sadler--and opening the space. Rich Melman came over to investigate and immediately proposed a Corner Bakery installation, which has been a successful additional food outlet for the Museum.
And then over to the west side with the Hall of Birds which we are rebuilding and reopening in honor of Christina and Ron Gidwitz. The Africa Hall which we have never effectively promoted—a wonderful exhibit telling both the natural science and the human story of Africa. And then What is an Animal? Farther to the west, the Rice Wildlife Center with the African Rift Valley mural, now with five of our scientific staff explaining the story that is told in the mural. Next door, the Lions of Tsavo, the Asian Mammal Hall, and the great dioramas which we are now working to share with the ARKive project of the BBC.
Back on the east side, Hall 10, which is now the Alsdorft Hall of the Pacific Northwest and Arctic Peoples, with the marvelous totem poles from the northwest coast; the Pawnee Lodge with the image of the Pawnee sky constellations above it, and then the hall of more recent America: the cases and dioramas of my childhood—wonderful objects but very primitive in the way the story is told. As we think more about the public spaces, the opportunity to maintain the old while enhancing it with modern technology is a great opening for this Museum as well as other natural history museums
And central to it all Stanley Field Hall with the T.rex SUE, the Akeley Elephants, the totems from the Pacific Northwest, and the New Guinea masks—space that can be transported into elegant dining for 1000, or receptions for even more. The special events team here at the Museum--Megan Williams Beckert and her colleagues--introduce evening visitors to the Museum with imagination and precision.
And then one more floor down to the “garden level” as we call it. The administrative offices, but also with the new Crown Family PlayLab; with Underground Adventure; with the Egypt Hall; and the home of the BioSynthesis Center—The Field Museum’s contribution to the online Encyclopedia of Life. And the Siragusa Center—a welcoming location for our school groups where we can feed 1200 schoolchildren each day in three seatings. The East Entrance, fully accessible to visitors in wheelchairs, with engravings above from the 4 academic depts. Each a succinct statement of the science represented here:
“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” – Charles Darwin
“If we are to achieve a richer culture…we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities.” – Margaret Mead
“…If a person walks into the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books…” – George Washington Carver
“…No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” – James Hutton
And then on the west the newly re-established Harris Loan program—a lending library of objects and dioramas to schools; the aforementioned McDonald’s and the wonderful public spaces of the Simpson and Montgomery Ward Lecture Halls.
And if visitors want to go deeper, we can take them down into the Central Plant or into the massive Collections Resource Center-- a 200,000 square foot addition of compactorized storage and labs, necessitated by the relentless addition of objects on the average 500 per day which are added to the collection by our scientific staff.
So that’s a quick overview of the tour that I have done hundreds of times, and every time I do so, I learn something else about this wonderful place.