Opening the Vaults: how the 1893 World’s Fair paved the way to Chicago’s Field Museum, and so much more…

Chicago’s got a rich history. Ok, that’s practically an understatement. But, not many would contend that the 1893 World’s Fair — the World’s Columbian Exposition — was a pinnacle moment in Chicago’s cultural heritage.

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The Fair was a celebration not only of Columbus’ arrival in the new world, but also a celebration of the innovations of the time and of the vast world cultures. But before I jump too deep into this, let’s jump into a big part of the Fair that lives on today. The vast fairgrounds were beautiful, but sadly meant to be temporary. Only 2 of the more than 200 buildings remain, one of them being the Palace of Fine Arts. You might know it now as the Museum of Science & Industry. But before it became the MSI, it was the home to the Field Columbian Museum — which we know today as just the Field Museum.

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The Field Museum moved to it’s current location in 1921, and with it the vast collections which originated from the World’s Fair. The museum opened just months after the Fair closed as a means to preserve the various displays from the exposition and commemorate the Fair itself. In fact, many of the Fair’s directors and organizers became the museum’s first board members and curators. Over 50,000 items were donated or bought for the museum.

Field Museum 2013

Why is any of this relevant — other than the fact that, hi, this is pretty cool information… Well, that’s because the Field Museum has a new exhibit that is highlighting the World’s Fair and it’s crucial role in founding the museum. In the exhibit, Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair, you can find some artifacts that have rarely — if ever — been on display since the Fair.

Now, despite having lived in Chicago for over 6 years now, I haven’t been to the Field Museum since I was a little kid when my grandmother lived here. I don’t remember much, but I was very excited rediscover the museum as well as learn about its history. One of the cool things that they’re doing in correlation with the World’s Fair exhibit is an interactive app that allows you to go one step further in exploring the collections.

Field Museum App - Home page Field Museum App - Tours

The app has pre-loaded tours — though currently just the World’s Fair tour is operational — and as you continue through the various exhibits and halls in the museum you can scan QR codes which provide you then with additional information, videos, audio clips, and even appearances from the museum scientists. So as I walked through the Hall of Birds, I scanned the code for the Toucan and got to learn about the current research by the museum to learn about their DNA. Or scanning the Feather Mask in the Pacific Spirits exhibit to hear a conservator talk about the restoration of the piece. (If you scan the QR code by the totem poles in the main lobby area, you get this great 360° panoramic of their journey to the fair. As shown above in that first picture.)


Parakeet exhibit in the app Parakeet in exhibit

You can also create your own tours, which you can actually submit through the app for consideration by the museum for future tour offerings.

Along with the app, the museum also has interactive iPad displays in some of the exhibits which offer similar information (videos, maps, additional facts), as well as some games. In the World’s Fair exhibit, there are two interactive displays: one that allows you to “scan” Peruvian mummies; the other allows you to play Javanese percussion instruments. Both of these are adjacent to the actual items they’re exploring.

Peruvian mummies at the Chicago Field Museum interactive mummy exhibit at field museum

The World’s Fair exhibit goes beyond just showing off some of the museum’s original collections. It also discusses the progress made in research, but more importantly also in anthropology. The Fair showcased a lot of industrial innovations — things that brought us Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheats, and PBR. But the Fair also was a show case of “exotic” worlds and cultures. Along with all the taxidermy of various strange and new wild animals — lions, giant seals, and echidnas — people were also on display at the Fair. Villages were recreated, and tribal people were there to show their “primitive” ways of life. A lot has changed since then, and now many native peoples are directly involved in shaping the way museums represent and showcase their culture and heritage.

I mean, let’s put things into perspective about 1893. Darwin had just come out with his theory on evolution of the species in 1859. Phosphorescent lightbulbs, a forerunner to florescent lights, were just being showcased at the Fair. Our understanding of dinosaurs was in its (fast growing) infancy. So many things were a complete mystery then. However, thanks to the Fair’s collections, scientists have been able to make huge steps in understanding these things. Even today, museum scientists are using artifacts and specimen from the Fair to further our knowledge.

I spent around 5 hours in the museum. (I definitely recommend making sure you wear extremely comfortable footwear.) I feel like I barely scratched the surface of what the Field Museum has to offer. If it weren’t for the 1893 World Columbian Fair, Chicago wouldn’t have this absolutely amazing institution.

Erini at the Field Musuem

The 1893 World’s Fair was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that people even mortgaged their homes for so they could afford to go. (True story.) But thanks to the Field Museum, we’re able to experience some of those same wonders from 120 years ago. And no need to mortgage your home either. Like the Fair, there’s a range in tickets, as well as discount days. (And hey fellow Chicago residents! You get a discount just for living here.) The Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair exhibit is open until September 7, 2014. However, as mentioned, a great number of the artifacts and specimen from the Fair can be found throughout the museum’s permanent exhibits. (Once I figured out how to find them, I sort of turned it into a game trying to find as many of them as I could.)

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I was selected for this opportunity by Clever Girls Collective, however all content and opinions expressed here are my own.