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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(Photo: The modern Chicago skyline…at least according to one of many hopelessly outdated exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry.)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What I conveniently forget, however, is room after room of dodgy, laughably outdated, peeling, fading, and/or corroded exhibits that have sat neither renovated nor replaced seemingly since the Indians were defeated at Fort Dearborn.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–Lessons about science that use outdated science;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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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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9 replies

  1. I agree with your premise. As someone who has both been there as a tourist (or rather, with tourists) and worked there, it is comically out of date. There are some kind of cool things in there, but they are all kind of sad. All the ship models in the basement are pretty neat, but they are just kind of sitting there, with no real continuity or explanation. Ditto with the cars around the corner, some interesting automobiles (and a few that might have been neat in the ’70’s but are now just old cars), but really, the Elvis car museum at Graceland has made better curatorial decisions. Really hit or miss.

  2. I feel that the museum does on a nice job with the “industry” part. However, the science part is horrible. The entire upper level – which mainly focuses on science – is just down right outdated.

    I used to think that MSI was a great place – then I visited the Cleveland Science Museum. That place really opened my eyes. Plus you could combine it with a trip to the Rock N Roll Hall of fame next door.

    I do agree that MSI is VASTLY improved over what it was in the 1980’s. I think they have REALLY missed the boat on capitalizing on “The Devil in the White City” book. They should have a permanent exhibit over the 1893 Worlds Fair. I think all they currently have is pictures on the wall.

  3. You are lucky that you were never at MSI in the 1980’s when the place was pretty much in shambles and nothing worked. I don’t recall the full story, but I think at one time they were under the umbrella of the Chicago Park District who grossly underfunded them and I believe made admission free. In the last 20 years or so MSI has done a pretty good job at developing some pretty neat exhibits and in particular putting the rotting train and submarine indoors. I thought that the submarine exhibit was excellent and had to cost a fortune to construct.

    I have some experience in the museum industry and it is a business like all others. Actually I found it to be somewhat less ethical and self serving than “for profits” I have worked with. It all comes down to money. I have no idea if and how much in endowments MSI may have, but it takes a tremendous amount of money and effort to develop and maintain exhibits. Of the half dozen museums I have worked with, I found the MSI exhibit department to be one of the best.

    I agree that some of the exhibits were of dubious scientific value (The Motorola exhibit comes to mind). The Navy exhibit looked as if were curated from a surplus store and was pretty much of an embarrassment. I was there in January and visited the traveling Star Wars exhibit which was a total joke, but it brought people in the door, and for the most part they seemed happy with it. MSI has to serve many different groups with a limited budget and I think that they work pretty hard to get the biggest bang for the buck.

    I believe that MSI creates two new exhibits a year and are in the midst of a major rejuvenation at the moment. I think that we should see continued improvements in the coming years.

  4. I think MSI gets caught between people like you, who would like a real science museum, and people who grew up with it and don’t want them to get rid of the stuff we grew up. Some people really want it to be a museum dedicated to what a science museum of the early 60s was like.

    For me, as long as they leave the Mold-o-rama machines I’ll be fine.

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