A note on Chicago
Coming from New York City Chicago feels like it has voluminous amounts of space. The streets are wide, the Airbnbs are big and they really want you to eat hot dogs. Museums are also a million miles apart, unlike the comparative museum jam that is the Upper East Side. Feet are literally bleeding now. Not kidding. I get on the subway, stroll past Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate' and find myself at...
The Shedd Aquarium
Perched right on Lake Michigan, the Shedd Aquarium is a 1930s gem of a building. This octagonal construction is, for the most part what a more modest early 20th century aquarium would have been – kind of like an alive, aquatic version of New York’s Natural History Museum, the aquarium displays various tanks complete with marine life and identifying labels showing you where the critters come from.
The Shedd Aquarium – interior (click to explore)
Each of these displays fan out from a central “Caribbean reef” which on my visit had the added delight of a real scuba diving cleaner!
Towards the back of the building is a 1991 built “Oceanarium” which contains the more dubiously held specimens including dolphins, otters, penguins and, in a tank that honestly didn’t feel nearly big enough, several beluga whales (I counted four). Although seeing these creatures in the flesh is exhilarating, particularly via the subterranean viewing windows I spent most of the morning trying to gauge where on the spectrum of intelligent marine life I draw the line when it comes to cruel captivity. The beluga exhibit, unfortunately strode over that line.
Coming back up to the grand level I was struck by the chaos that had developed up here during my time below. What was probably way too many school groups had now invaded the aquarium with much shouting and banging on glass. I nearly came to the rescue of a jurassic looking snapping turtle who was being harangued by four teenage boys with a penchant for whacking glass surfaces. In the middle of all of this was a large, open topped, shallow pool where several creatures were available for petting. Standing in a gap in the middle of the tank was a man with a crackly microphone whose apparent vocation was to loudly chastise over-boisterous marine life petting. Couple this with the sheer enthusiasm that school children were flocking to the tank and the whole effect was one of utter chaos. My moral radar also in alert mode, I felt quite unsettled by the whole experience, despite it being vaguely hysterical.
Microphone man trying to control chaos.
It was super lovely to see some of the small creatures including Puranas, moray eels, said snapping turtle and several puffer fish who always seemed to be hiding in the picture. I’ve certainly seen animals held in worse conditions before so if you’re the sort of person who can look past that this is a beautiful gem of an institution in a historic building that modern, large scale aquariums should be envious of.
Admission: $30.95 for basic access (no show)
Digital engagement: Several military grade touch screens with content that didn’t further augment printed panels. Kiosk mode seems to have eluded aquarium staff at several stations unless they actually wanted us to see the Windows Vista controls.
The Field Museum of Natural History
The Field Museum was founded in 1893 to display objects at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Originally funded by merchant Marshall Field, the sprawling neo Classical building sprung up in its current location in 1921.
The Field Museum – interior (click to explore)
I’d encountered a lot of talk about the Field Museum on this trip and was surprised to see how wanting it was for an update. That being said, it is known as being one of the world’s premier museums largely due to the scale of its collection, the scientific work it conducts and its education programs. Only problem is, as a visitor you don’t really get to see it. Part of the exorbitant ticket price included access to one of three exhibitions or a film. I opted for “Specimens”, an exhibition documenting the collecting process of the museum. At several points, this exhibition alluded to the millions of objects held in the collection which only made it more frustrating that I couldn’t see it all. A perspex model of the building tantalisingly displays a basement, spilling out of the bounds of the surface level building which hides all the treasures. The fact that the number of items in the collection is constantly mentioned exacerbates my frustration as I wander around this huge and, on the bottom floor at least, largely empty building.
There is a huge opportunity here for the museum to lean less on traditional museum interpretation and to find new ways to give visitors access to the scale of the collection and the research that is being undertaken. At various points in the building, science labs are exposed where you can see scientists busy at work with countless specimens. More of this, I say!
Scientists at work.
On the ground level there is a very comprehensive collection of taxidermy however having been to the Natural History Museum in New York City recently, I had seen very artfully created dioramas and taxidermy. These, unfortunately don’t stack up which did, on the other hand make me treasure my experience in New York City even more.
Very impressive, though is “Sue” the T Rex in the main hall, a very rare specimen which is 90% authentic. She’s an excellent welcome and farewell to this grand old building.
Admission: $22 including only one exhibition. Can cost up to $36 for AAA.
Digital engagement: Basic app relies on QR codes attached to a sparse amount of exhibits.