Museum of Science & Industry (Part 1)

Just as Doug had a childhood of airshows (while Anna married into the experience), Anna’s childhood was steeped with Friday afternoon visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (MSI). Doug’s first visit—our first visit together—was over the December holidays in 1992. We went to see the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit, a display of evergreens, each decorated with ornaments representing a different country. Though not related to science or industry, the exhibit had started in 1942 as a tribute to the Allies in World War II. Likewise, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has little connection with the museum’s main focuses. It’s a gorgeous, intricate simulacrum, but it’s not science. It demonstrates detail-oriented craftsmanship and industriousness, but it’s not about Chicago—or American—industry. Once a tradition takes hold at the Museum of Science and Industry, though, it tends to stay a long time. We like tradition; we appreciate the power of ritual.

What we especially enjoy about the MSI, and other museums like it, is that it’s a buffet for the mind, inviting us to stop and sample (the two of us have been known to overindulge). As children, we were interested in one thing one week, and another thing the next. Our tastes change inexplicably (even as adults, it turns out). Sometimes, it’s trains, but then it’s planets. And a museum like this one introduces interests we might not have thought to otherwise have. As a five-year-old, Anna didn’t know that a thing called a submarine existed, until she saw it nestled up to the museum—of course, then she was intrigued.

When Anna and her sister were young, their parents would sneak out of work in downtown Chicago on a Friday afternoon, head home to South Shore Drive, and haul the girls to the nearby museum for an hour (it was free in those days). Each girl could choose one exhibit to see. Brigid usually chose either the baby chicks hatching—their beaks cracking the shells from the inside until they could emerge wet and unable to stand under the heat lamps—or the Coal Mine, there since the museum opened in 1933, as opposite as could be from the feather clumps that become adorable, hopping chicks.

Photo by Urbanrules (Wikimedia Commons)

On our first visit together, we waited in the line up the stairs (there’s always a line) and finally entered the Coal Mine’s cage, its rickety, enclosed elevator. The ride is loud and dark, bodies packed together in a box descending with a racket into the mine. Doug’s claustrophobia only added to his sense of adventure, and even after we exited the cage, the mine shaft didn’t offer much more wiggle room. The lights went out, the lamp flame exploded with a pop, everyone jumped (even when you’re expecting it, you start), and the guide told us about methane gas build-up. This exhibit sucks you into believing—you can’t help but pay attention and, therefore, learn something new.

Though longtime visitors insisted the original ride not be altered, some updates to the Coal Mine—mostly to add modern-day technology (and probably safety)—occurred in 1997. That’s nostalgia, but it’s also evidence of the way we think about the world and our lives in it. As children, we take for granted that what is in a museum is true and always has been. We don’t have the perspective yet to know how much the world changes. We don’t really understand that time elapses over longer periods than we have lived. Pluto is another example of this phenomenon: it’s not really a planet, and we know there are objective rules about these categories, but don’t we wish, at some level, that Pluto still was a planet?

The nine-foot walk-through heart was a favorite, too, often added to a childhood visit when there was a little extra time.  The plaster-of-Paris heart was like a playground ride—only it was something inside your body too! When we went to the museum together, Doug didn’t find it as impressive as Anna had led him to expect. She admitted that it seemed a little smaller than she remembered, but found it pretty amazing to see an organ from the inside. That heart was installed in 1950 and replaced (oh no!) last year with a 14-foot throbbing heart that matches its beats to a visitor’s pulse. We all grow up.

On the other hand, walking into the hall that’s housed “The Great Train Story” since 1941, we were struck by its enormity. That’s an odd sensation for a 1/48-scale model to evoke. Its scale is small, but the model spans from Chicago to Seattle, with 30 trains on 1400 feet of track running through all manner of terrain and industrial regions. Looking at Chicago, we recognize Sears (now Willis) Tower, but there are also beachgoers and Gene Kelly singing in the rain, a waterfall and a gas station, the American flag and pink flamingos. The detail is so accurate that the tiny figures waiting at the Red Line subway station are based on a photograph of people waiting for a train at that actual station in 2002, when the exhibit was expanded. Trains—we’ll have to come back to this topic in future posts.

Anna’s childhood memories of MSI remain so powerful that they drive the title poem of her poetry collection Constituents of Matter. Just as our childhood toys (see earlier post) created ways for us to see parts of the world we couldn’t otherwise imagine, the Museum of Science and Industry gives us ways to see the world and how it works. And to see a lot in a day. And to want to go back for more. Really, it’s delicious and nourishing!

2 thoughts on “Museum of Science & Industry (Part 1)

  1. to say that I was culturally spoiled as a child would be a gross understatement. starting before I was school age, until i was well into high school, every saturday morning my grandparents would pick up me and my sister from our little condo and we’d spend the day exploring. we did museums, theatre, sporting events, zoos, historic districts, war reenactments, even a few important cemeteries. but the MSI was always a top 3 for me (the art institute and the brookfield zoo were also faves) so we went there a lot, and i mean A LOT! the amount of time i spent staring at the “pickled babies” and those chickens hatching—countless! oh, and the pendulum in the stairwell…like crack for me. sadly, I haven’t been since i moved back to chicago. i did go twice while on visits home from grad school—a visit to the “body worlds” exhibit which was insanely cool and then i went as a camp counselor with a group of 2nd grade girls who spent more time in the gift shop than at any exhibit, which broke my heart.
    after reading your lovely reminder of how great the MSI is, i am thinking a trip is in order…once all the kids in the chicago area are back in school!
    PS—i did the coal mine once in my life, that was plenty. me and small, overcrowded, dark spaces=no thank you!

    1. Chrissy, great to hear about your childhood memories. I was especially enamored by the fetuses as well (see my “Constituents of Matter” poem). We saw the Body Worlds exhibit there too, and that will get a separate post (I was most disturbed about how people talked about the pregnant body, especially the pregnant visitors–after all, it was a real woman who had died at nine months pregnant). We were a Lincoln Park Zoo family, too.

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