Walker Evans, "Halsted Street, Chicago (Two Blind Street Musicians)," 1941. The photo is part of an exhibit at the Smart Museum of Art. | COURTESY OF THE SMART MUSEUM OF ART
IF you go:
♦ ‘80 at 80,’ through Feb 2, 2014, Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore, (773) 684-1414; msichicago.org
♦ ‘The Land Beneath Our Feet,’ June 27–Aug. 25, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood, (773) 702-0200; smartmuseum.uchicago.edu
♦ Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights, permanent display, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan (312) 443-3600; artic.edu
♦ ‘Date with the ‘80s,’ through July 4, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, (312) 846-2600; siskelfilmcenter.org
Michael Sosson has a wistful air about him as he walks through the Museum of Science and Industry’s new exhibit, “80 at 80.” Laying eyes on the eight-foot-tall Paul Bunyan sculpture, one of the 80 objects lining a long hall, Sosson lights up. “I remember him very clearly.”
Now the mailroom clerk and a 35-year museum employee, Sosson once guided guests through the classic “World of Hardwoods” display, which opened in the 1950s and shuttered in 1986.
“I remember the hardwood exhibit’s tilted room; it looked like Paul Bunyan’s head was holding up the room,” Sosson says. “Kids were afraid when the head moved that the room would move. But it didn’t.” He smiles. “The hardwoods exhibit was good.”
Bringing the infamous Paul Bunyan head out of the vaults, the museum had a certain goal in mind: Show off 80 years of display techniques in 80 artifacts, culled from some 35,000 in storage. But, for the most part, what the exhibition offers is a heady dose of nostalgia — especially to longtime museumgoers.
“I remember the Stuka was over the information desk,” says Sosson, pointing to a 1940s airplane engine. “... the Transparent Anatomical Manikin was on the balcony; most school kids had never seen anything like that.”
If the image of knapsack-toting, idyllic Chicago childhood sounds intriguing, this summer various cultural institutions in addition to the MSI also beckon.
On Wednesday, the Smart Museum of Art opens “The Land Beneath Our Feet.” The exhibit of American art shines the spotlight on Chicago, with works ranging from an Andreas Feininger photograph featuring Maxwell Street Market in its heyday to master shutterbug Walker Evans’ panhandling musicians on Halsted Street; and although it’s more romantic than nostalgic, Childe Hassam’s Columbian Exposition painting is the unmistakable lake shore strip — just add a melange of hoop skirts and arms clutching guides to the fair.
“Some beloved paintings will look familiar to visitors,” notes exhibition curator Anne Leonard. “There are areas of the city recognizable to Chicagoans.”
So, you might ask, why all the nostalgia?
Like many institutions, the Smart Museum organizes summer exhibits with works from its permanent collection. But this is the first American survey — partly coming together in homage to the 1913 Armory Show, which took place in New York and Chicago 100 years ago. Also celebrating an anniversary is the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, the origins of the MSI. “A thread for the show is the way in which Chicago presented itself in an international context,” Leonard says.
Across town, the Art Institute of Chicago expanded and reshuffled the perhaps most kooky, long-time beloved area: the Arthur Rubloff Collection of Paperweights, now housed next door to the Thorne Miniature Rooms. The late-2012 rehab spurred increased summer traffic through the two basement-level displays. “They are visiting in droves,” notes department chair Christopher Monkhouse.
It’s not just the singular strangeness that draws patrons toward the museum’s paperweights, on display since the Mrs. Potter Palmer II donated glass doodads in the 1930s. “Each one is a miniature masterpiece and a technical tour de force. People are fascinated by things that take a tremendous amount of time,” Monkhouse enthuses. “Interest trailed off, in terms of making paperweights, but collectors rediscovered them.”
Around the corner form the Art Institute, the Gene Siskel Film Center adds its own brand of nostalgia with the “Date with the ’80s” film series. Through July 4 it is screening 11 filmsindicative of the decade including “Diry Dancing,” “Repo Man” and “Footloose,” among others.
But lest you think this burst of homegrown wistfulness only touches longtime Chicagoans, or, for that matter, the over-thirty set, think again.
At MSI, the frightening-yet-compelling Paul Bunyan head works its magic on wee tourists — even if the woodcutter rarely makes an appearance in elementary-school textbooks.
“What’s that?” goes the tots’ refrain. “That’s a keyboard,” (circa 2000) Dad responds. “What’s that?” The wonderment is palpable. “A telephone.”
And then again, perhaps nostalgia seems particularly popular because the days of yore aren’t so very far behind.
Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.