All’s Fair — The 1893 Columbian Exposition showcased at the Field Museum
By Tricia Despres | For Sun-Times Media October 23, 2013 5:19PM
Chicago's lakefront painted a portrait of "The White City" for the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.
‘OPENING THE VAULTS:
WONDERS OF THE 1893 WORLD’S FAIR,’ Oct. 25, 2013 – Sept. 7, 2014 The Field Museum, 1400 Lake Shore Drive (312) 922-9410;
Updated: October 23, 2013 5:19PM
It’s not as if he hasn’t seen a mummy before.
As an associate conservator at the Field Museum, JP Brown has dug up his share of the dearly departed throughout his 10-year tenure. But there was just something about this little girl.
Maybe it was the way the 2½-year-old, most likely a descendent of the Chancay culture of Peru, cradled a broken figurine in her hands. Perhaps it was the fetal position of her body, unlike the Egyptian mummies we have all seen. Or maybe this little girl reminded him that even hundreds of years since her untimely death, emotional responses are the same.
“The younger the people are, the more troubling it is,” said Brown during a recent interview. “It actually can be quite upsetting when I think about it. One of the things that make us human is how we treat and respect our dead. In all of these years, that has not changed.”
Indeed, the staff at the Field has been waiting a long time — 121 years to be exact — to showcase the little girl’s figure and countless other pieces of history during the upcoming exhibition “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” opening Oct. 25. The mummy of the little girl was just one small part of the over 65,000 exhibits that went on display during the 1893 World’s Fair, an event that drew over 25 million visitors to Chicago during its six-month run. And not only did the event signal the rebirth of The Windy City following the Great Fire of 1871, but also the genesis of the Field Museum.
“We refer to the museum being born out of the World’s Fair,” said exhibition project manager Paola Bucciol. “We have over 25 million objects in our collections andsub-collections, and over 50,000 of those objects came from the World’s Fair. Those items essentially made up our founding collection.”
During the past nine months, a team of scientists, graphic designers and content managers has tirelessly worked to narrow the collection to 200 objects on display for the exhibit. “The 1893 World’s Fair was so much a part of the core of the Field Museum and the city of Chicago,” said Brown. “It’s truly how all the academic disciplines in the Midwest got their start. There really was not much going in 1893. At the time, Chicago was simply a commercial center. Yet, with the conclusion of the World’s Fair, the Field Museum and other institutions became the place where we could continue the learning process of the natural world and mankind as a whole.”
Long before the Internet, the only way to have access to the world was a ticket to the World’s Fair.
In 1893, people even mortgaged their homes to get their hands on the 50-cent admission tickets to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. All these years later, those original, priceless tickets still represent a glimpse at a once in a lifetime event.
“The tickets always seem to get to me,” said Field Museum librarian Christine Giannoni. “They would use different designs each day, trying to drum up business. The color and beauty of these tickets after all these years is breathtaking.”
Also on display will be the handwritten books where each item coming into the Field Museum from the World’s Fair was meticulously catalogued.
“The difference between the old days, where they used their best cursive to document these things versus what we do today to digitally document our collection is amazing,” said Giannoni. “We have taken great care to make sure things such as these tickets and these ledgers are here to be enjoyed for the next 100, 200, 300 years. We are just the temporary stewards of these materials.”
From a tiny meteorite to the 30-foot-long model of a squid that hung from the ceiling during the World’s Fair, the exhibit allows the public an opportunity to take a close look at objects that have not been viewed by the public since 1893.
“We don’t consider it going back in time,” said Bucciol. “In fact, we consider these objects very much alive because we are still learning from them, over 120 years later.”
Tricia Despres is
a local freelance writer.