The Field Museum Exhibit Brings 1893 World’s Fair Back to Life

My family loves going to the world-class museums in Chicago. So we were particularly excited to hear about a new exhibit at The Field Museum.

The museum is bringing history back to life with its latest exhibit — Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair — which transported us back to the World’s Columbian Exposition. The exhibition shows us what visitors saw and experienced 120 years ago. There are more than 200 artifacts and specimens on display.

When the World’s Fair opened, it was a national and worldwide event. Massive buildings were created just for the fair, and The Field Museum was founded to commemorate the fair. It was an event not to be missed no matter where you lived in the world. I just love this quote which I believe reflects how important people felt the fair was: “Sell the cook stove if necessary, but come to the fair.” – Hamlin Garland

The exhibit is designed to help you understand what the fair meant to people at the time and show how the fair actually operated. There are large-scale murals and atmospheric projections that helped transport me to the fair’s grounds. We even got to see ledgers from the time, which listed incoming artifacts as well as how much people paid to get in to the fair. People even paid 25 cents just to watch the fair being built!

Full-wall images of the 1983 World’s Fair, transporting you to the time.

How people of different ethnicities were treated was shocking and appalling. For example, I learned that people were first introduced to Ragtime music at the fair; however, African American musicians were barred from the actual fair, so they played outside the grounds. Complete villages of people from foreign countries were flown in for the exhibit and put on display. They were treated so poorly, not even receiving food rations, that some of them broke from the fair and set up their own “villages” in other areas of Chicago. Truly, our understanding and study of cultures have markedly changed over time.

In addition to the social lessons of the time, the exhibit offers a lot of cool items to check out. My boys thought the Peruvian mummies were creepy cool. Also, the instruments from the Javanese village caught our fancy. Not only could you see these old instruments but they have an interactive digital exhibit where you can “play” the instruments and see what kind of sounds they make.

The actual interment on display and the digital instruments my boys played.

What’s different about this exhibit beyond the usual display rooms is the treasures of the fair are splattered throughout the museum, giving you the perfect excuse to wander. But how can you find all of the treasures? The Field Museum has an app dedicated to helping you discover the world’s fair’s artifacts. Plus, they offer free wi-fi to easy to turn your experience multi-dimensional.

We absolutely loved exploring the Evolving Planet exhibit with all of the dinosaurs! There I found more artifacts from the fair and learned about this awesome mastodon. I was able to mark this particular video as a favorite so I could watch the video at home without my kiddos interrupting me.

If you haven’t traveled to Chicago or visited The Field Museum, now is the time to plan your trip. The World’s Fair Exhibit will be open through Sept. 7, 2014. Chicago is such an amazing city, and adding The Field Museum to it would make an incredible vacation. Oh, and be sure to say hi to Sue for us!

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Sue, The Field Museum’s resident dinosaur. A highlight of any trip to the museum. And don’t worry. She’s friendlier than she appears.

Cool Facts About the Exhibit

Was The Field Museum part of the World’s Fair? The Field Museum was NOT part of the World’s Fair. It opened a few months after the Fair ended, in the building that was the Fair’s Palace of Fine Arts (now the Museum of Science and Industry). The Museum moved to its current location and re-opened to the public in 1921.

Are all the objects in the exhibition from the 1893 World’s Fair? Most of the objects in the exhibition are from the Fair. The exhibition also features some more recent additions to the collections that relate, in interesting ways, to the Fair.

Where were these objects displayed at the World’s Fair? We don’t know due to incomplete records when they were accessioned into the Museum’s collections. However, we do know that many came from the following buildings: Forestry, Anthropology, Agriculture, Administration, Mines and Mining. Some objects came from cultural displays in the Fair’s grounds such as the Javanese village.

What surprises will the visitors discover? The amount, variety, and novelty of the Fair’s displays —from electricity to meteorites, to people from different cultures, and beloved products like Juicy Fruit Gum. The Field Museum was born out of the World’s Fair. In addition, new technologies allow researchers to make discoveries about our oldest objects

Are there other objects from the World’s Fair in the Field Museum’s collections? The Field Museum has 50,000 objects from the World’s Fair. (The Museum’s entire collection has grown to more than 25 million.)

Are there other objects from the World’s Fair currently on public display? Hundreds of objects from the World’s Fair are on display throughout the Museum’s permanent collections. To learn more, visitors can download the Field Museum Tours App.

What does “Opening the Vaults” refer to? Opening the Vaults is an exhibitions series that showcases objects from the Museum’s collections that have rarely—if ever—been on displayed. Objects in these exhibitions are displayed much like they are stored deep in the Museum’s vaults.

Is it true that there were people on display at the Fair?
Yes. At the 1893 World’s Fair there were recreated villages and exhibits that put people on display in their traditional costumes and buildings. These often highlighted the differences between non-western and western cultures, which is very different from how we present cultures today. Today, cultural displays aim to celebrate the creativity and diversity of all cultures.

11 Comments

  1. I started for a second on your title – I didn’t know that there was a Fair in 1983–oops! Anyway, I do love the Field Museum and any time I go to Chicago I ALWAYS spend some time there.

  2. I would love it if they would do something like this here in upstate NY so I could bring my grand kids. A great history lesson while having fun.

    1. The exhibit is spread throughout the museum. So I would recommend planning on several hours at the museum to walk through places you would find interesting. My husband and I could literally have spent the entire day.

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