Ten Great Science Museums: Field Museum of Natural History

By Judith Stone|Monday, November 01, 1993
I love this place, says Jessica Tanenbaum, who is nine. We pass through a neoclassical portico of imposing proportions into a central hall with requisite echo, altogether the equivalent of James Earl Jones intoning the word museum. Isn’t it beautiful? I’ve been sick here a lot. I used to always have to throw up after the car ride. Nevertheless, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History has been a lifelong favorite of Jessica and her sister Molly, 12, who live in nearby Wilmette.

What separates a museum worth suffering for from one you wouldn’t stoop to be sick in? Asked to explain what’s good about the Field, the girls are thoughtful and articulate. They like its balance of old and new, Molly says. When you walk in, you want to see those elephants, explains Jessica, referring to the rather fierce jumbo brace in the central hall. They’re comforting; it wouldn’t be the Field Museum without the elephants. But you also want some excitement.

Rather than theorize, however, the girls itch to introduce me to the place. Watching them navigate it, noting what tickles, what bores, and what outrages, I learn a great deal, much unexpected, about what makes a good science museum.

I also learn more, of course, about Molly and Jessica, whose mother, an old friend, has been coming to the Field Museum since she was a toddler. Molly wants to be an architect, Jessie a writer. Molly’s favorite planet is Mars and Jessie’s is Jupiter; Molly plays third base and Jessie plays center field. Molly can sing the entire Periodic Table of Elements, the Tom Lehrer version. Jessica’s class is studying Mayan math. The girls also love the Museum of Science and Industry and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Molly, where’s Big and Little? Is that still here? Yes! There! We dash for an exhibit called Sizes, designed to serve up the concept of relativeness, with a side order of magnitude. We test a mammoth table and chairs, meant to make adults look like Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann. We step onto a scale showing what we’d weigh if our bone structure were twice as big. (Lithe Molly tips at 650-ish.) The girls look through a microscope and rate each slide with the adjectives du jour: a bee’s leg is gross, a pine needle is cool. I begin to learn:

In a good science museum, the ratio of cool to gross should be pretty even. Items that rate a cool this day include masks of the Northwest Coast Indians, a faux Hope Diamond, a do-it-yourself ocean current. Hot lava is very cool. Certified gross: naked people, a demonstration of animal skin preparation, the ancestry of lice. Simultaneously cool and gross: a Mayan musical instrument fashioned from a human thighbone. I’d foolishly thought that the cool should outweigh, not equal, the gross. But actual approval rating matters little; exclamation is the point.

Central to the Sizes exhibit is a display of the visible blue jeans spectrum, from an infant’s pair, barely a swatch, to a hefty size 56- -beyond Relaxed Fit to Heavily Sedated Fit--available for inspection. The girls feel compelled to wear the jeans, one sister per leg. Clasping each other around the waist, they Levitate jerkingly to the mirror. The scientific principles demonstrated are a) the bigger the jeans, the bigger the laugh, and b) a good museum is one with things to try on--perspectives, pants.

A good science museum should also rekindle childhood memories. Jessie, says Molly, remember the time we went through and checked whether every single animal here was a male or a female? They chuckle nostalgically and attempt to leap as far, proportionately, as a flea, which can jump 100 times its height. Then they want to check out ancient Mesoamericans.

Earlier, the girls had waved off a proffered map with the icy politesse of a Tour de France winner declining training wheels. We proceed in zigs, zags, loops, switchbacks; we tread a roundelay. Ancient Mesoamericans. Northwest Coast Indians. Eskimos. (The sign should say INUIT, says Jessie huffily, her consciousness raised since her last visit. Eskimo means eater of raw flesh, and it’s an insult.) Then a gallop through Indians of the Plains and the Prairies, with a brief stop at a buffalo. (Look, Jessie, it’s huge, calls Molly. A discreet peek. Yep, it’s a boy.) Upstairs to Gems and Traveling the Pacific, down and up a tomb Inside Ancient Egypt, down to Sea Mammals and Prehistoric People, up to A Place for Wonder, the all-hands-on room. When Molly says, midday, I’m going to find those cave people if it’s the last thing I do, I know better than to suggest consulting a floor plan. Clearly this is part of the pleasure; deliberately losing your way in a museum makes things new again.

What determines the route? Past pleasures, current enthusiasms and revulsions, whim, climate. (Not the jade room, Jessie! But we like the jade. I know, but it’s too hot in there.) We don’t stop at Families at Work simply because today the girls are hell-bent on showing me opals. Why the tomb? Because Molly’s studying Egypt, plus you should never pass up the chance to see a tightly wrapped 4,000-year-old dead person. Why not the Tibetan exhibit? They’re just not in a Tibetan mood. Ditto Mammals of Asia, Plants of the World, and Bird Habitats. They just happen to be in a who- wants-to-see-dead-birds? mood.

A good science museum stirs strong passions and creates piles of implied italics. Don’t you love narwhals? I love narwhals! Sailors mistook them for unicorns! I hate this Triceratops. It’s totally stupid. For one thing, this is teeny; a Triceratops is much bigger than this. And what’s it doing here with the cavemen? Look at its eyes, they’re so phony. And the skin! They don’t even know what color dinosaur skin was! They just took a wild guess!

And it is taxonomically stimulating. Molly observes that she would call this a social studies museum, not a science museum. Of course, she muses, you need chemistry to do radiocarbon dating, so they overlap. The matter also interests Jessica. Some science I can’t tell from social studies. I mean, like Mayan math. I know it’s arithmetic, but is it also social studies? I’d say it’s social studies, because you have to know a lot of stuff about the Mayans.

A good science museum makes you ponder other provocative questions: Given the choice, would you rather be infested with sucking lice or chewing lice? Is a zoo a museum, and if so, why? Could a sedimentary rock be squeezed into metamorphic rock through human agency? Do girls like museums more than boys? That depends on what kind of boy and what kind of girl, says Molly. The issue is your personality, not your sex. Adds Jessica, It depends on whether he’s a cultural boy or just into sports. But I’m into sports and I’m a cultural girl. They begin to sing, Cause I’m living in a cultural world, and I am a cultural girl. A good museum inspires shtick, from the primitively obvious--pointing to Homo erectus and saying, Look, there’s Dad!--to the more sophisticated: holding a huge chambered nautilus to her ear, Jessica listens raptly to the sound of the sea. Can you hang on a second? she asks politely. She turns to an onlooker and explains, I have shell-waiting.

A good science museum leads you to make connections. (Hey! So that’s what a bull-roarer looks like!) A good science museum inspires spontaneous and unself-conscious dancing. (One minute the girls are sitting watching a video of an Inuit shaman dancing; the next minute they’re capering along.) A good science museum has a McDonald’s in the basement. I’m sorry, but it does. Think of a Happy Meal as a cultural artifact, if it makes you happier or mealier. Jessica used the occasion of lunch to observe, One of my favorite exhibits is the foreigners. Do you notice they all know how to say Big Mac?

But the single most crucial thing about a good science museum, I learned, is that it has lots of stuff to put on your head. The girls’ favorite part of the museum, A Place for Wonder, is a room arranged with drawers of related objects: animal coverings--fur, feathers, and carapaces- -perfumed woods and spices, fungi and pods, bones, fossils, rocks and minerals, and some human handicrafts, like baskets. For 45 minutes I watch children ranging from just out of diapers to pushing puberty and see them lifting object after object, without premeditation, barely with consciousness, ritually, to the skull.

Molly and Jessie are rather sophisticated young persons who can argue the relative merits of last year’s Matisse show versus the Magritte and quote lengthily from Saturday Night Live. They like putting things on their heads, too. Could a lover of narwhals resist modeling a horn? Molly is drawn to a complex, cortical hunk of coral; she hefts it noodleward and calls, Look at my giant brain. Theirs is a literal capitulation to learning, a surrendering to experience via the head.

See, Mama, see my hat? says a kid wearing a tortilla basket. A little later she says the same thing about a starfish. Other children shout: Mom, Mom, look, I’m Bambi. I have antlers! Look, now I’m a skunk. See, Dad, I’m the elephant man. Look, I’m fungus face. Look, Uncle Tim! I’m a turtle! See my shell?

Two components are important, the Look! and the I’m! A good science museum engenders totemic identification with the objects of the natural world. A good science museum encourages behavior not hermetic but mimetic. (Or in Jessica’s case, emetic.) A good science museum is conducive to sympathetic magic.
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