In 2008, Pastry Chef Chris and I visited Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and went home thinking the only modern piece of technology in the dusty, outdated place was the Dyson hand dryer in the men’s room. Our opinion would have been different had we visited the spectacularly rehoused U-505 exhibit, but even then, we’d only have had two things to remember fondly from our visit. With the museum’s new natural-phenomena Science Storms exhibit, times have changed–and I’m happy to eat my previous words.
A private tour with museum staff the day before the exhibit opened didn’t hurt, either. Interesting how that came about. In March of this year, the Chicago Tribune ran a pre-opening piece calling the exhibit’s admittedly spectacular, man-made tornado (pictured above) the tallest ever at 40 feet. I emailed reporter Bill Mullen pointing out the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Germany, can actually create a taller (though not permanent) whirlwind in its atrium.
Mullen let me know aggressive editorial oversight led to the factual error, and forwarded my original email to MSI PR director Lisa Miner, to boot. Miner clicked on the blog URL in my signature file, and she and Senior Exhibit Developer Dr. Olivia Castellini read my 2008 article about the museum.
I hope you followed all that because it doesn’t get any less connect-the-dotsy. To my surprise, Miner contacted me and asked if I’d like to take a look at the new exhibit to see how things have changed at the museum–a private tour with her and Castellini the morning before the exhibit opened to the public.
No, no, I couldn’t possibly… Yeah, right. That morning I arrived at the museum with a healthy sense of humility for the tour on which I was about to be led, troubled by an equally healthy level of skepticism about what I’d find behind the two-story cloth curtain hiding the newly renovated wing.
My apprehension evaporated swiftly. Castellini, alone and, later, with Miner, walked me through Science Storms for almost two hours, explaining detail after detail. The only 0ther people in the exhibit at the time were museum workers putting the finishing touches on things, but Castellini assured me more than once, “Don’t worry, we’ve spent so much time putting the exhibit together, it’s great to finally get to show it off to people.”
Speaking as an ADHDer, I was amazed to find the exhibit kept my attention almost unwaveringly. MSI has managed a neat trick: devising a mix of highly interactive small- and large-scale exhibits–some of which engage with visitors on separate floors at the same time–to almost sneakily teach the chemistry and physics behind natural phenomena. Those phenomena include tornadoes, avalanches, tsunamis, sunlight, lightning, and fire–each one demonstrated by a huge, interactive signature exhibit piece.
That morning I got to:
- Stand inside the 40-foot tornado with Castellini, asking is she felt like Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton;
- Drive an avalanche down a 20-foot rotating disk that for the first time ever that morning developed an unexpected clean patch amid the swirling, falling sand;
- Watch (magnetic nanoparticle-infused) liquid defy gravity;
- Shoot tennis balls from one side of the exhibit hall to the other (there’s a point, but it just felt deliriously silly);
- Learn the secret of the wave action exhibit–water-filled disks hang in midair and you watch refracted shadows on the floor because in an early version of the exhibit, people kept peeking under the exhibit table to watch the shadows anyway; and
- Turn into a 10-year-old to test the Bernoulli principle by using a column of air to levitate a table full of sponge balls–by far, my favorite of all the exhibits.
I was also handed a ticket by Miner to–finally–visit the new, underground home of the U-505 which totally blew me away. (Best moment–turning the corner from the dimly lit pre-show hallway into the sub’s massive cavern and finding the U-boat sitting right there, pointing directly at me.)
But wait, there’s more. Miner also invited me and two guests (who ended up being Pastry Chef Chris and his boyfriend, Backstory Jim) to attend the opening night reception for museum staff and travel-industry professionals. In between gorging on bacon-wrapped figs, the three of us spent far too much time playing with the periodic table exhibit–an actual table with RFID-installed disks you use to “drag” elements from a top-projected table of elements into an “experiment” area that plays a movie showing what happens when your particular concoction is combined together. For me, this was done mostly to see how many things I could combine with sodium and make explode. (I was pretty good at it, too.)
We three also got to see the ceiling-mounted Tesla coil up fire up, demonstrating the power of lightning in one bone-jarring, hair-raisingly loud snap-crackle of electricity. (Miner shared with me she had her infant in the exhibit hall once when the coil fired and feared fright would be the result–however, as with me, the result was, instead, wide-eyed wonder and unexpected laughter.)
The new You! exhibit hall was open for the reception, too. I still miss the former walk-through heart, but taking a spin on the human-sized hamster wheel sure had me impressed with the wind those little creatures must have. I thought Backstory Jim was going to have to peel me off the floor afterwards.
There were a few misfires. The confetti from an open-air static electricity exhibit ended up inside vacuum cleaners by the end of day one, and on my last visit it and an interactive fire exhibit were completely DOA. But those are minor quibbles. In fact, Science Storms held up on two independent repeat visits I made to drag other friends to see the exhibit that Miner and co. don’t yet know I made.
In the end, did I learn detailed tomes about natural phenomena from the exhibit, or even many things I didn’t already know from having paid attention in school? No. Did I find my curiosity piqued about the world around me and why it works the way it does? You betcha.
That’s about the best you can expect from any science museum. For the first time in the almost eight years I’ve lived in Chicago, I can finally understand why so many hordes of locals and their parents have such fond childhood memories of MSI. At one point, all the old (now largely replaced) exhibits must have felt as fresh, new, and repeatable as Science Storms feels.
So kudos to MSI for one heck of an amazing new exhibit, and many thanks to Miner and Castellini for truly appreciated VIP treatment that: a.) I didn’t expect; b.) I’m not sure I really merited; and c.) got me in the door to see how much things have changed for the better. Why, I can only imagine one thing that would have impressed me more.