Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Field Trip

(Honestly, I couldn't help myself. And I'm sure no one has ever made that joke before.)

Yesterday I visited the Field Museum of Natural History. It's a HUGE building crammed with fascinating stuff. And I say that about the bits they have out for you to see. Given what I know about museums, I'm sure there's even more behind the scenes.

For those of you who are interested in such things--and I don't know how you could not find something to interest you at the Field--basic admission to is free on the second Monday of every month, thanks to a generous donation by Target. The free second Mondays program is a great way to get acquainted with the Field, but I know I'll have to go back and probably pay. Which is fine, because I spent about five hours inside and didn't see even a quarter of the stuff they have on display.

This is one of the first things I saw as I approached the musem. I took a picture of the entire building, but it wasn't nearly as impressive as the place looks when you're walking up to it. Anyway, this brontosaurus(?) model is hanging out on the terrace on the west end of the museum. I have no idea whether or how one gets to it, but finding out can be a project for another day.

I love it. I think it looks like a watch dinosaur. I want one of those in my yard.

Below is the facade of the museum. Shortly after I took it, a very nice woman asked me to take her picture on the steps and offered to take mine in exchange. I opted to not use that picture. I look like a walrus in it. Anyway, you'll never, ever guess what the big draw, pay additional exhibit is at the Field right now. There's a teency little clue in the photo, but I bet you won't find it.

Still can't figure it out? I'll give you a hint. It's related to a very popular international holiday that happens to be this coming Sunday. And if that doesn't give you enough of a clue, maybe the fellers hanging out in the next picture will.

I'd just like to take this moment to say that museums have certainly changed over the years. The Field actually offers a fantastic opportunity to see that in action. I could compare the newer exhibits with the older ones, since it doesn't look like they re-vamp already existing displays. When I visited museums as a kid, with one notable exception, they never had the kind of fun, interactive, interesting, creative take on their collections and exhibits that museums seem to now. I LOVE that there are pirates rappelling from the ceiling. I. Love. It.

And I love the fascinating juxtapositions you get when you mix pirates with natural history. Here's Sue. With pirates. Isn't she gorgeous?

A couple of thoughts about Sue, while we're admiring her. She's amazing, I think. And the museum had three different docents standing there, sharing information about her. I'm not surprised, she's a big draw, and a pretty significant treasure.

But she's smaller than I expected. I don't know, I had the idea of a T-Rex all built up in my mind. I was thinking she'd take up two thirds of the main hall. I was thinking she'd tower over me by twice as much as she did.

I think poor Sue suffered from what I refer to as my Stonehenge Syndrome. I call it that because my visit to Stonehenge in 1988 was the first time I experienced the phenomenon. It was one of the out-of-town trips my exchange group took when I was studying in London. As we drove up to it on the bus, almost every student in my group said the same thing. "That's it? I--I don't know. I thought it would be, you know, bigger."

Part of that response could be due to the largeness of the area that is Salisbury Plain, and part due to the fact that Stonehenge had been built up in our minds as this imposing, mysterious place. And it is fabulous and awe-inspiring. But it's also only about half as tall as we were all expecting it to be, thanks to the various films and photographs we'd seen earlier in our lives.

So my response to Sue was a bit like that. The main hall of the Field is VAST. It's HUGE. Sue is a bit dwarfed by the space she resides in. She also suffers by comparison to the dinosaurs in films like Jurassic Park. And, she's been built up as such a fearsome predator that she just didn't seem as big as she by rights ought to be.

Still, though, she's pretty incredible.

This, by the way, is not her head. I know that it's attached to her body, and it looks for all the world like her head, but it's not. Sue's skull weighs about 600lbs., and is thus too heavy to attach to her skeleton. So there's a replica on the body, and her actual head is in a glass case on the second floor. Which is kind of cool, because it's at eye level and you get a better idea of how big it actually is.

There's a whole bunch of interactive stuff up there with the head, but I was tired and hungry by the time I found it, and sped through that part of the museum. I'll be back, multiple times, I'm sure, so there's really no rush. I can't see it all in one visit, so I'm making sure that I really enjoy myself with what I do see.

And now for the Pirates!

Yes, I did indeed fork out the $8 admission fee to visit the exhibit. I hadn't been planning to, but when I saw the pirates rappelling from the ceiling like this fearsome fellow, I had to see it. I'm glad I did.

I took no photographs inside the Pirates! exhibit. You're not supposed to. Nor food nor drink nor photography be allowed, and I'm generally pretty cool about following the rules when they seem to make sense. In this case, I figured it was a contractual thing with the entity in charge of the exhibit (it travels). Plus, as an actor, I'm pretty touchy about people taking/using my image without my consent, so I was willing to abide by their request about photos.

The Pirates! exhibit is pretty cool. It follows the history of the pirate Sam Bellamy and his final ship the Whydah through their lives to their horrible end at the bottom of the sea after running onto a sandbar during a hurricane. It has lots of really interesting information, though I felt like there were some important bits missing. Bits that were significant parts of the storytelling. Like how/where Bellamy came across the Whydah, what happened in their encounter and how he eventually won her. That may have been at a station I missed, but I covered that room pretty thoroughly, and we went from a history of the slave trade, how the Whydah was built and her early route and the cannons and other weaponry found aboard to "Bellamy followed her for three days at sea before he finally caught her."

Wait, what?

The same thing happened near the end. I'm still not sure how long he had the ship before it sank.

However, there were some awesome artifacts in this exhibit. The ship's bell. The remaining remains of the eight year-old pirate John(?) King. The treasure. That bit was probably the singlemost awesome part of my entire trip to the Field Museum. They had the actual treasure, the only actual pirate treasure ever brought up from the bottom of the ocean. In a big glass case you can walk around. AND, a small interactive station where you can touch it. Those of you who know me know how tactile I am. There's nothing like being able to actually get my hands on history. I was all over that stuff. I would argue that was the very best moment of the trip for me.

One anecdote from the exhibit and then we can move on to the other bits I saw yesterday. There's a section that deals with how important certain occupations were in the pirate world, they needed carpenters and armorers, for instance, and would frequently force those people to sign the ship's articles and join the crew. (Other pirates joined freely, it was, all things considered, a fairly democratic enterprise.) Anyway, among those pressed into service as it were were musicians. Because pirates liked their leisure time activities. Including theatre. And drinking.

The story goes that there was a play taking place on board the Whydah. The Royal Pirate. A group of crew members walked into the performance just as the protagonist was sentenced to death. They'd been imbibing, and were unaware that a play was going on. So they leapt to their comrade's defense, lobbing grenades and attacking the assemblage. In the melee, they broke the actor's leg, cut off the playwright's arm and killed a member of the audience.

It must have been a tremendously realistic production.

The Pirates! exhibit is full of interesting facts, fun interactions and great visuals. There is awesome music tailored to each section, there are some great videos. It's so full that I hit my "Can't. Take. In. Any. More. Information." point before reaching the end of it. Though petting pirate treasure snapped me back out of my trance. Briefly.

I think it took me almost two hours to go through. Though that may not surprise anybody who's gone to a museum with me. One of my life's goals is to know everything, so I tend to read all the placards and look at stuff intently for long periods of time and generally dawdle so I can soak it all in before moving on.

Anyway, contrast all of this modern, interactive, exciting approach to history with the way museums used to do it, and you can definitely tell that things have changed dramatically in the past 15-20 years. Fascinatingly enough, you can make that very comparison in the Field Museum itself.

These are masks from the various Northwest tribes. I wandered through this exhibit because I was feeling a bit homesick for the PNW, and the native artwork always grounds me. Don't ask me why, I do not know. I only know that while the big stone statues at the International Museum of Surgical Science creeped me out, the towering totem poles from the Coastal Tribes made me feel all safe and at home.

(Interesting side note here: Not only is there a really big Pacific Northwest tribal collection on display at the Field, but the Shedd Aquarium, right next door has revamped their largest exhibit to mimic the Pacific Northwest coast. So when I feel homesick, I can go to either and get my fix. I wonder if the display at the Shedd is as cold as the Oregon and Washington coasts are.)

Anyhow, compare the above photo with the music, videos, sets and interactive stations of the Pirates! exhibit and you'll see what I mean about how things have changed as far as how museums display their collections. It's even more obvious if you go through the Plains and Southern Tribes section, though the Platte Earth House is a modern and notable exception.

I just realized how very, VERY long this entry has become. I wound my way through one other section of the Field yesterday in the five hours I spent there, Ancient Americas. But I have a whole bunch to say about that, so I think I'll save it for another time. Maybe even tomorrow.

I'm going to wrap up by saying that the Field Museum of Natural History is well worth the time and money you spend to go there. There's way more than anyone can see in a single visit. I made it through three exhibits, and there are easily four times that many in the building.

Things you should also know: The museum is open 9am-5pm daily except Dec. 25. There are several price packages available, depending on which special exhibits you wish to see, and special prices for Chicago residents every. single. day. So you don't have to wait until Second Monday to get a discounted admission. But Second Mondays are free.

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