Mausoleum of Science and Industry


(Photo: The modern Chicago skyline…at least according to one of many hopelessly outdated exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.)

Why are Chicago museums so inconsistent? It’s always either feast or famine, a balance of the sublime and the craptastic. Sure, we have the world-class Art Institute, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, heck, I’ll even throw in the Chicago History Museum and National Museum of Mexican Art.

But why must we continue to suffer through a contemporary art museum that is a legend in its own mind? A planetarium passing off 1990s technology as cutting edge? Or the biggest civic tithe of cultural mediocrity in the midwest, the Museum of Science and Industry?

I knew better when I asked Scooter to spend an afternoon with me at the MSI in January. But it was free week, and like many Chicagoans, I have an unhelpfully short memory when it comes to the less impressive side of Second City must-dos. I think it’s that same gene that forces Chicagoans to eat over a garbage can, dodge kamikaze wasps, and pee in a porta-potty in 90-degree weather at the Taste of Chicago. Sure, every year we swear we’ll never do it again, but like ravenous lemmings with Alzheimer’s, a year later we always come back for more.

So it is with me and the MSI. Don’t get me wrong, classic exhibits like the decades-old mine train, World War II U-boat, and Zephyr train, or the technology-forward new Earth Revealed, are worth the price of admission, themselves. That’s the part I remember every time I make my annual visit to the last remaining building from the storied 1893 Columbian Exposition.

What I conveniently forget, however, is room after room of dodgy, laughably outdated, peeling, fading, and/or corroded exhibits that have sat neither renovated nor replaced seemingly since the Indians were defeated at Fort Dearborn. Besides the above, properly respected headliner exhibits, here’s what else your almost-$20 combo admission gets the average Chicagoland family:

–Text-based computer games written in the 1980s and played on faded monochrome screens;

–A 1970s-era exhibit about sickle cell anemia that is illegible because half of the copy has fallen or been peeled off;

–Push-buttons that rarely do anything when you push them;

–Lessons about science that use outdated science;

–A cavernous bathroom that smells like it hasn’t been cleaned since 1893; and

–An almost total lack of “wow” factors to engage the minds and expectations of contemporary kids.

The last bit is the most galling. In a world of Wiis and Playstations where virtual reality is old news and even the CTA can manage to deploy flat video screens, the best the MSI can do to try and elicit oohs and ahs is lighting up a wall panel of 30-year-old photos (witness the picture at the top of this entry) when a paint-flaked, dented red button is pressed?

You’re kidding, right?

It wasn’t just me. Chris had his fill of the place in about an hour, and frankly, so did I. But this time, I wanted to set my thoughts down while they were still fresh in my mind to save myself the trouble–and the trip–in 2009.

I’m firmly convinced this place lives on its laurels. There are far better, more modern science museums in this country (San Francisco Exploratorium/New Jersey Liberty Science Center, anyone?) The only reason I can come up with to explain why Chicago parents keep dragging their kids here year after year is that they grew up with these exhibits and remember them fondly.

Let me assure them, a “Networld” exhibit about the Internet that looks forward to a day when we’ll all be making purchases electronically isn’t doing 21st-century children any educational favors.

As a fan of Chicago history, I want to like this old place. It has the potential to really live up to its hype and be a world-class science museum. Right now, though, it’s an unfortunate, unfocused mish-mash of irrelevant and new technology, with an emphasis on the former. (Hands up who else can’t believe they’re still trying to pass off a 727–a plane that first flew in 1963–as a modern jetliner?)

In a downright bizarre twist, as we were leaving, we found the most impressive, interactive, engaging piece of technology at the MSI in a bathroom. The lobby men’s room, specifically. If it weren’t for the 400 mile-per-hour goodness of the newly installed Dyson Airblade hand dryers, we would have had nothing fun to do at the museum at all.

Dyson Dryer.JPG

The best tech the Museum of Science and Industry has to offer sits next to a toilet and the worst part is I wasn’t surprised. Anywhere else, that would be an ironic find. At the MSI, it’s just a pointedly suitable metaphor for a particularly crappy museum.

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