Chicago Stories and Tips

A Boy(?) Named Sue: The Field Museum of Natural History

Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum Photo, Chicago, Illinois

Having spent the night an hour outside Chicago after outrunning the ice storm, we easily made it to the Field before the 9am opening. As we walked up the steps to the imposing entrance (think National Archives), flanked on each side by hundreds of yards of columns, we passed family after family with young kids just leaving after spending a overnight of ‘Dozing with the Dinos’.

I’d never made the connection before, but the ‘Field’ immortalized here is, of course, Marshall Field, founder of Chicago’s preeminent department store. Chicagoans are probably thrilled that, unlike his business, the museum still bears his name and not Macy’s, who probably engendered significant ill will by evicting Mr. Field’s name from all other locations in town. The collection housed here started with the natural history and ethnography artifacts collected for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, which also seemed obvious once I knew; Field was prevailed upon to finance a permanent home for the collection, a bequest for which generations of Chicagoans and, truly, the world can be grateful.

Since admission was free that day, we sprang for tickets to ‘Underground Adventure.’ Those were discounted, too, so my three kids and I saw both the Museum and Adventure for $19 total (my above-ground-only spouse’s museum admission was free, too). We knew the Field’s enormous collection was too much for a half-day, so we quickly picked some highlights. Sue led the list, of course. The star of the Field now inhabits the west end of the central hall, a region that older visitors will recall as formerly occupied by the creature formerly known as Brontosaurus (now more accurately monikered as Apatosaurus and moved upstairs). While photographing the hall’s ceiling, ack! Dead battery! How did I forget about that?! Not even a picture of a Sue! Stanley Field Hall at the Field Museum

Sue seemed comfortable in her new surroundings, after spending 65 million years under a hillside in South Dakota. The largest and most complete T-Rex ever unearthed, she’s named after the amateur fossil hunter who discovered ‘her.’ The Field won the ensuing bidding war, acquiring her in 1997 for $8.4 million, and unveiling Sue in 2000. They’ve made the most of their acquisition, surrounding their diva with a variety of multimedia and standard displays in the gallery overlooking her at the hall’s south end. A series of Apple Cinema Displays show a good piece on how ideas about T-Rex have changed, ending with the tail-lifted (not dragging) posture assumed by Sue; and a second piece uses Sue to illustrate how science proceeds, emphasizing the difference between fact, theory and speculation. Sue’s actual five-foot-long, 600-pound head is here, too, being too heavy to display on the rest of her body (a lighter plaster cast fills that role). Among the examples of what we have learned from Sue is an admission of something we haven’t: although the fossil bears a female name, scientists have yet to find a way of determining the sex of any dinosaur. In the meantime, Sue it is.

We continued around the corner to Evolving Planet, a huge display illustrating the development of life on earth with countless well-chosen examples from the Field’s collections, supplemented by new videos explaining the ideas of natural selection. This is excellently done, and takes an hour or more to do it justice. We made it to the sixth mass extinction before moving on. The real highlight is the Hall of Dinosaurs, where the demoted Apatosaurus now sits, along with dozens of phenomenal skeletons of Triceratops and others. It’s stunning to think that creatures this large walked the earth for 60 million years (their reign ended with Mass Extinction #4). If you race through to their large home, however, you’ll miss a lot.

From there we headed to some Field classics: the nature dioramas that were revolutionary in their time, and have aged reasonably well, and the Egyptian tomb of Unis-ankh transported from the Valley of Kings and reinstalled here on three stories in the Museum’ southwest corner. This is as close as I expect I’ll ever get to Egypt, and the feeling in the dimly lit limestone passageways was awesomely realistic.

After a snack, we finally entered ‘Underground Adventure,’ a "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" foray into a simulated soil, complete with three-foot earwigs, 12-inch seeds, and other subterranean creatures and inhabitants no one seemed too thrilled to see at that scale. I was underimpressed, and my kids found it a little hokey. The displays didn’t seem to capture anyone, although the more traditional installations after we’d been ‘expanded’ back to full size seemed more worthwhile. I’d pass if I were you.

After acquiring Sue memorabilia in the large gift shop, we grabbed our coats from the coat check and headed down the promenade to the Shedd Aquarium, ready for more of the Natural World, and ready to return to the Field on our next visit to Chicago.

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