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posted: 11/3/2013 7:00 AM

Field exhibit takes visitors back to 1893 World's Fair

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  • The 1893 World's Fair covered 630 acres in Chicago's Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance -- a narrow strip of land designated as an amusement area.

      The 1893 World's Fair covered 630 acres in Chicago's Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance -- a narrow strip of land designated as an amusement area.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • To encourage attendance, organizers of 1893 World's Fair made different tickets for themed days; Chicago Day was one. A ticket to the fair cost 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children younger than 12, and admission was free for children younger than 6.

      To encourage attendance, organizers of 1893 World's Fair made different tickets for themed days; Chicago Day was one. A ticket to the fair cost 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children younger than 12, and admission was free for children younger than 6.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • At the time of the 1893 World's Fair, the sciences were rapidly developing. But it wasn't until after the fair that the full scientific significance of specimens like these fossils was realized. New technologies help scientists continue to make discoveries from the earliest collections.

      At the time of the 1893 World's Fair, the sciences were rapidly developing. But it wasn't until after the fair that the full scientific significance of specimens like these fossils was realized. New technologies help scientists continue to make discoveries from the earliest collections.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • The Field Museum's "Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" will run through Sept. 7, 2014.

      The Field Museum's "Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" will run through Sept. 7, 2014.
    Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

  • In many ways, the 1893 World's Fair was a "trade show." Botany collections at the fair were displayed only to show resources available in other countries and the United States. The exhibit shows oils, woods, fibers and grains in their original glass containers.

      In many ways, the 1893 World's Fair was a "trade show." Botany collections at the fair were displayed only to show resources available in other countries and the United States. The exhibit shows oils, woods, fibers and grains in their original glass containers.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • These are just a few of more than 40 pieces that compose a gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrument that was played at the 1893 World's Fair; it is one of the Field Museum's most treasured artifacts. These lions are part of the xylophone portion.

      These are just a few of more than 40 pieces that compose a gamelan, a traditional Indonesian instrument that was played at the 1893 World's Fair; it is one of the Field Museum's most treasured artifacts. These lions are part of the xylophone portion.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • Organizers of the Field Museum's "Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" inserted video of modern people in period garb into familiar pictures of the fair.

      Organizers of the Field Museum's "Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair" inserted video of modern people in period garb into familiar pictures of the fair.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • The Midway skyline of the 1893 World's Fair was dominated by a 250-foot Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by engineer George Ferris. It could carry 2,160 people.

      The Midway skyline of the 1893 World's Fair was dominated by a 250-foot Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by engineer George Ferris. It could carry 2,160 people.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

  • This Sioux child's vest and other Native American garments like it were worn in "live displays," featuring people from different cultural groups who lived in villages within the fair. Visitors bought tickets to visit different villages where they saw other cultures' daily life, rituals and performances.

      This Sioux child's vest and other Native American garments like it were worn in "live displays," featuring people from different cultural groups who lived in villages within the fair. Visitors bought tickets to visit different villages where they saw other cultures' daily life, rituals and performances.
    Courtesy of The Field Museum

 

"Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair."

-- Author Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents

Whether sparked by tales of ancestors who traveled to the great fair from small towns across the country or visiting the actual Chicago site, the 1893 Columbian Exposition grabs our imagination -- despite the 120 years since.

Erik Larsen's wildly popular book, "The Devil in the White City," eliminated any chance interest would flag, and two of Chicago's major museums have intimate ties. The Museum of Science and Industry is in what was once the Palace of Fine Arts, the exposition's only permanent building, and the Field Museum was founded to house 50,000 artifacts after the fair closed.

The Field displays a fraction of those artifacts in its new exhibit, "Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair," which will be open through Sept. 7, 2014.

The fair -- just 22 years after the great fire all but destroyed the city -- signaled Chicago was back. And its legacy lives on today.

Open only six months, the fair reportedly inspired Frank L. Baum to create the Emerald City for his "Wizard of Oz" books and gave us icons like Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum, the Ferris wheel and Columbus Day. (The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' expedition -- a year late.)

The world came to Chicago, bringing millions of items to show an estimated 25 million visitors. Besides buildings for fields like agriculture, manufacturing and horticulture, including a California tableau of the Liberty Bell made from citrus fruit, each state and a myriad countries had their own buildings.

One of the most dramatic parts of "Opening the Vault" features huge projected versions of black and white pictures of the fair, plus added video of modern people dressed in period clothes. Viewers see them stroll through the Court of Honor and pop into a few of the 200 neoclassical buildings, making it easier to imagine actually being there. And yes, the Ferris wheel turns, and organizers remind visitors that it was 100 feet taller than the one on Navy Pier and could hold 2,160 people.

The epithet "White City" probably came from the color of the white stucco buildings at the fair, but also could refer to the lighting.

"At night, the fair was lit by hundreds of thousands of electric light bulbs that created a truly magical scene. However, the many types of electricity, beyond just the light bulb, were what made the electricity displays at the fair so significant," reports "Book of the Fair" by Hubert Howe Bancroft.

Carl Akeley's taxidermy was one of the stars of the fair, and the Field shows a photo of the pioneer, who later joined the museum staff, standing proudly next to a leopard he strangled with his bare hands -- thus Akeley's sling and bandages. The skin of that leopard, who did not go easily, is part of the exhibit. Nearby a huge Steller sea lion is shown in its storage crate.

A variety of items were for sale at the fair, and some of the Field's great fossils still wear their 1893 price tags, often $2 or $5. That was actually quite pricey, considering admission was 50 cents. Visitors can run fingers across a large, smooth slab full of 400 million-year-old fossilized corals, advertised at the fair as a construction material.

Exhibitors stressed the economic value of exotic materials. They presented fossils as fuel, not specimens for studying evolution. Thus, visitors can see gloves and muffs crafted of "sea silk" or byssus, filaments from clam-like pen shell bivalves. There's also a lace shawl made from tree bark.

One of the exhibit's digital setups allows visitors to play an Indonesian gamelan, a musical ensemble consisting of a variety of instruments, including percussions and strings. The instruments were used for musical performances in a 1,000-seat theater in the heart of the Java Village in the Midway section of the fair. Today, the gamelan is one of the museum's most treasured artifacts.

Current Field anthropologists are embarrassed that "primitive" people were also brought to Chicago for the pleasure of gawking fairgoers. They were set up on the Midway outside the main fairgrounds as part of the "amusement" portion. One group -- Laplanders -- rebelled, quitting because they did not get the promised food or fresh water. It probably didn't help that they were wearing their furs during a sweltering Chicago summer.

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