Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Museum of Nature/The Nature of the Museum

Through her letter to the editor of Inside Publications, Lincoln Park resident Ana Schedler Brennan brought to my attention the horrendous sign at the Notebaert Museum. Here's an excerpt:

The brashness of the bright, electrified, poorly conceived outdoor signs is an affront to all who value the limited natural park resource we desperately preserve at the lakefront. . . The Peggy Notebaert museum has, with lack of judgment and foresight, undermined its integrity by harshly overshadowing the very NATURE they exist to educate us about.

I drove by it one night a few weeks ago, and she is so right. It's ridiculous. But, it's also hard for an amateur like me to capture the problem in pixels. Here's a photo of it during the day(as my evening photo didn't take very well).

Why did they choose giant blue letters? I understand that blue is a nature color, but the museum is located in the park, not the water. At night, it shines like an illuminated Tidy Bowl.

Clearly this has been an institution in search of an identity for some time now. I think at one point in the last few years it displayed historical American documents -- like original copies of the Gettysburg Address not Audubon's sketches for The Birds of America.

Furthermore, the very name nature museum has always struck me as kind of creepy. Aren't museums for preserving stuff that would otherwise be permanently lost? Would it have hurt to have called it a center?

But, I went yesterday with three toddlers in tow (not all mine), and I think the place is beginning to gel. The butterfly room was stunning. Truly. It was probably my fourth visit in as many years, and the place was filled with them. I've never seen so many in my previous visits. Everywhere you looked, there was a butterfly with paintbrush-fresh colors floating along as if it was being bounced from a thread.

And, the tray of emerging chrysalises fascinated me. I studied it for a long time. The cocoons are hung in rows with straight pins and organized by species> You can see some that are empty because the butterfly has emerged and flown off, and others are in the process of emerging -- like halfway out in some instances. The chrysalises looked like tiny, conical seashells, but from each there were two faint, antenna-like things sticking out. They all seemed to have them, even the empty chrysalises. All of it very cool and wondrous. Plus, I didn't accidentally squish any of the butterflies on my way out like during my last visit.

The Museum is a descendent of the Academy of Sciences which was originally opened in 1865, and was most recently housed in the building where Armitage meets Clark. (It's now a zoo administration building.) This probably explains the wide assortment of old, taxidermied animals displayed throughout the place.

It's a hard juxtaposition to my mind -- the stuffed dead things amidst the celebration of the living -- and their use felt strained throughout the place, the worst being the giant polar bear standing on its hind legs in the entrance window. Somehow, it didn't work for me. Maybe if polar bears were indigenous to Lincoln Park, but I'm still not sure that would help. How educational can a stuffed bear really be? I guess it taught me that polar bears are extra tall when they stand on their hind legs and they seem to preserve well.

All that being said, I was pleased to see that the museum seems to be moving in a meaningful direction. We can only hope they'll come to their senses soon and get rid of the Big Blue Sign, less we begin to mistake Las Vegas for nature.

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