Surprises of the World’s Fair of 1893
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 has become this legendary fair that put Chicago on the International map. Today, Chicagoans let their imaginations run wild for being among the first ride on a “Ferris” wheel, 100 feet taller than the one that commands Navy Pier’s skyline, to taste the sweet Juicy Fruit of Wrigley’s chewing gum for the first time, and hearing ragtime being performed just outside the Beaux Arts pavilions designed by the world’s first “starchitect” Daniel Burhnam placed in a setting envisioned by the father of landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmstead.
The Field Museum opens their vaults for Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair, showcasing some of the artifacts from the great World’s Columbian Exposition. The museum and the exposition have a deep connection, as the institution came out of the call to create a place to house the over fifty thousand objects on display at the fair.
The 1893 world’s fair has become a convergence of mythical proportions in Chicago. Exposing visitors to all the wonders the modern world at the end of the 19th century has to offer, bringing people from all around the world to this young city, just 22 years out from the Great Fire, Chicago culture owes its early legitimacy to this seminal event.
Jars of colorful oils, viles of seeds, and selections of woods, fibers and resins fill a display case in front of where Christine Niezgoda, Collections Manager of Botany at the Field Museum and I are standing. “Here if you look at this array of oils, most of them are olive oils from Spain. We have resins from all over the world…alot of these came from south ameria, venezuela, colombia, brazil. This whole display is of Russian grains, wheats, barley. I must have 100 different varieties of corn from Bolivia. ”
She says the Fair was a grand setting for something that would seem familiar today
“People for get this was also a trade show” Niezgoda says. “I think its because I’m looking at from the perspective of our display. But if you think of the expositions that happen now there’s alot of new inventions, new things being show. Why would you send all your olive oil unless you’re promoting “Buy my brand of olive oil, we have the best.” And not just one jar, as you can see we have…I think I have another dozen or so jars of olive oil
So this exposition that has been exalted for being the epicenter of culture for this young city, putting us on the international map…was in a sense a well attended housewares show with an commercial bent.
Rudiger Bieler is curator of Zoology at the museum. “At the fair there was no display of a natural history museum or zoology collection. They were usually displayed in context with commercial exhibits. Like one of the labels you see here, there’s a mound of large animals in context of the shoe and leather display. So they were tied in to commercial products.
Yes, taxidermied animals to promote leather shoes.
The main room of the exhibition is divided into the four areas of expertise of the museum, Zoology, Botany, Geology and Anthropology.
“Projection screens overhead show archival photographs of the exposition animated to bring the to life. Taxidermied animals large and small pose ready to pounce except for the glass separating you, said Bieler. Regardless of the way the animals were used to market products, this was a new way to showcase these exotic animals in a more natural way.
“This was a new way for huge shift in the way taxidermy was being done,” Bieler continued. “Rather than stuffing these things with cotton and straw, it was the time when taxidermists developed techniques of sculpturing the animals. essentially as artists building a scuplture the showed the muscles and the veins and then put the skin over it. ”
One of the leading people of the time who developed these techniques was Carl Ackely who was then hired by the museum at the first chief taxidermist. His work in the early days of the museum has been copied by natural history museums around the world.
These artifacts in the exhibition were contemporary to the time of the fair, made specifically for the visitors of the exposition…so not the prized possessions the museum may seek today. But still they can be of significance in understanding a culture at a specific time be seeing how a society has evolved since.
“Many of the specimens are still being used in day to day research…So its not that we put these things away 120 years ago and now pulling them out of their vaults for the first time. Many of these things are used in research projects, education projects and other exhibitions we’ve done in the past. And the amazing thing for me is that it often turns out we can use techniques, approaches and answer questions that were completely unforeseen at the times these were collected. So, some of our bird researchers have been successful at getting DNA out of these old skins and can compare the gene pool of that time with what they are finding today in the same species,” Beiler said thoughtfully.
The exhibition also showcases a great sampling of objects housed on the Midway Plaisance. This area was a popular destination for visitors wanting to see the exotic villages of peoples and cultures deemed “Primatives”. Zulu shield and delicate necklace show the rich broad culture. Native American clothing, worn by “live displays” that means humans, then encased next to beadwork of the same tribe now, shows how the culture has adapted to the time.
And the exhibition wouldn’t be complete without an interactive component. Where you can play a virtual Gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrument on display and performed at the fair, as heard in this wax recording of a performance.
The exhibition may not be the traditional artifacts one expects in a museum exhibition, but it will change the way you view of contemporary culture.
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