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How To Visit the Chicago Field Museum (and What to Do There)

How To Visit the Chicago Field Museum (and What to Do There)

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 2 of 100.

For those of you who are reading this post because you want a unique but useful floor map of the Field Museum, wait no longer:

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This week I visited my friend/mentor/former teacher/current deity Peggy MacNamara at the Chicago Field Museum. As I have written before, The Field Museum has become my favorite museum on planet earth in the year since I took my first drawing class there. That’s because of Peggy, for the most part, although there was some foreshadowing on a Wednesday more than a decade ago.

Hanging out on the steps of the Field Museum in 2006.

Hanging out on the steps of the Field Museum in 2006.

That day, my friend Kim took a photo of me on the steps outside. It was typically chilly and gray; winter hadn’t snuck all the way up yet, but we'd had our first snow and I wore two pairs of socks. I met Kim through the urban studies program we were both enrolled in via our respective colleges; a semester in Chicago to learn about the ins and outs of a real American city. As the semester dwindled, Kim and I committed to spending several touristy days in The Loop. Before getting to Chicago in earnest, I’d made the following list of “Must-Dos,” informed, apparently, by an episode of “Family Matters” and reading The Jungle in middle school:

- Eat a deep dish pizza

- Picket at a meat-packing facility

- See the Sears Tower

- Chicago Tribune?

I guess I imagined being in a busy metropolitan hub, navigating seas of people and daydreaming about working in an office building in a skyscraper. Since I lived in Hyde Park, I spent very little time in The Loop, and I wanted more of what I deemed the “typical” Chicago experience. The Field Museum was a massive building we passed any time we took the number six bus into town, so we added it to the bottom of a growing Windy City bucket list. 

We loved the Field Museum so much it made us both cry. We spent five and a half hours inside, and that wasn't enough to see it all; it’s a huge museum, and the floor map is deceptive. The map makes it look like there is some possibility you could see all the things. But it is impossible. Hundreds of hours inside the Field Museum later, I still have not seen all the things.

To be transparent, I should say that the most affecting exhibit we saw that day was about the slave trade. It was brutal and awful and didn’t shy away from magnifying the utter horror and shame that white America has inherited — but tries so often to minimize or bury. That exhibit changed my life, and I would not be the person I am now if I hadn’t seen it. This post will not be about that, but if you are curious, here is a pretty good blog written (by someone else) about the exhibit as it was when we saw it back then. 

The second most affecting exhibit that day was the stones. There were rooms and rooms of stones, and I wrote in my journal the day after what I thought about the stones. It was a line that I felt was extremely poetic and surely something no one before me had ever thought. I highlighted it in yellow marker because I believed that the person who would be my biographer one day would want to pull that line out of my diary in order to quote me on it — that was how brilliant this line was. I wrote, “I was moved by the humbleness of the stones.” Man. Even now: CHILLS. “The humbleness of the stones?!” It’s amazing that a Pulitzer Prize hasn’t materialized on my desk yet. 

OK. So more than a decade later, I am sitting on the top floor of the Field Museum, in Peggy’s secluded office (for the record, probably my favorite indoor space on the entire planet), and I am talking with the actual earth angel Peggy Macnamara about life, birds, and watercolors — as usual. On the floor in front of us is Peggy’s most recent project: a giant painting of several orange-pink-green-blue fish, magnified and juxtaposed. Behind us is another recent project: bugs. Bugs and fish. Two abundantly overlooked groups of living things that are amply available to any human with the patience to look for them. 

“These fish are great,” I say. 

“Oh, tell me about it,” Peggy says. “I mean, they’re something else. Ridiculous!” She talks about their expression; about how hard it is to get the color of their scales because the scales are every color and no color at once. “And then look at the bugs behind you. Look at that one.” She indicates to a big beetle-like insect she’s painted in pink, with an intricate doily-like white pattern on top of it. “It’s a lace bug. It’s as big as that dot.” There’s a pencil smudge next to the painting that is, apparently, the lace bug IRL. “Can you believe those magnificent creatures are just walking around, acting like they’re no big deal? Pretending like they’re not crazy and perfect?”

The fabulous lace bug. Photo by Thomas Shahan, Oregon Department of Agriculture, via Digger.

The fabulous lace bug. Photo by Thomas Shahan, Oregon Department of Agriculture, via Digger.

And I can’t believe it; not really. That’s always how I feel at the Field Museum: like nature has got to be laughing its ass off at our arrogance. Our human swollen flesh bodies have got nothing on the lace bugs.

“It’s the humbleness of these creatures that gets me,” Peggy says. “These humble, miraculous creatures. No one gives them a second thought, but I don’t have words for how …” and she trails off. One of my favorite things about listening to Peggy talk is that when it comes to the living things she worships, she hates to try to pin words down. Nothing will ever be enough. Man is physically incapable of describing God.

*

Camille Pissarro, the French Impressionist, apparently said, “Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” I want to think he was talking about fish and insects; frogs and the birds that my mom’s friends call “little brown jobs.” Ferns, space dust, rocks at the bottom of a river bed. Moss.

Last year there was an exhibit at the field museum about moss. Actually, it was about mosses and lichens and other tiny, fabulous life forms that cover tree trunks and wet rocks. The writer and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote a whole book about moss; it’s terrific. Kimmerer is interested in the poetry of science — or maybe in the religion of it. All those words can get sort of sludgy next to each other: poetry, science, spirituality, religion, faith, hope, nature, physics, space. They might all be the same thing, somehow. 

Here’s Kimmerer on moss, for example:

There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the "dialect of moss on stone — an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.” 

That’s a lot to put in something so small. But Kimmerer likes how quiet moss is; how sturdy and small and curious. Moss explores. No one suspects it of anything, so it can get away with whatever it wants. 

Here's the cicada I pinned. Peggy told me that it was "squashed," which I couldn't tell because I was too distracted by how beautiful its wings were.

Here's the cicada I pinned. Peggy told me that it was "squashed," which I couldn't tell because I was too distracted by how beautiful its wings were.

At the end of the semester last year, Peggy gave us the tiniest glass bottles to “gather specimens in.” She told us to go on walks and notice things, and take them. Having the glass bottle, she reasoned, would make us all more likely to go slowly and notice the humbler things. She personally harvests hundreds of cicada corpses every year. One day last year she brought in a plastic bag of them and dumped them out on a table in the Field Museum basement so we could all practice carefully pinning then to styrofoam. They were beautiful beyond explanation.

My grandfather, who passed away this week, was a botanist. He studied strange little flowers in Alaska. He knew the names of all the birds. Last winter he got a crow whistle for Christmas from his wife, Susan; when someone used it on the front porch, he came to watch the crows gather, and his whole face lit up. I know people who would not be moved by the congregation of many crows in winter, but Grandpa Al was really into it. He looked childlike; he seemed to accept the mysteries of nature as a wonderful magic. (He would not have liked that I put it that way: he would have wanted me to call it “science.” But, as I said above, I don’t know that a distinction really needs to be made.) Blessed are those who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.

*

There are a few exhibits at the Field Museum that are criminally under-advertised. They’re always pretty empty, and when people stumble upon them accidentally, their visits are usually brief. I get it: the dinosaur bones are really exciting. So was the sexy tattoo exhibit (gone now), and the mummies and the 3D theater. But I invite you to spend a little time with the tiny, fabulous things. And to help you out, I’ve provided a map (see above) of the humblest exhibits, filled with some of nature’s greatest secrets. Peggy’s peregrine exhibit is up for just a while longer, but that gallery fails to disappoint very often — it’s the one where the moss exhibit was, too. 

And if you can’t get to the Field Museum, that’s ok. The best thing about humble beauty in nature is that it’s easily accessible and all around (Bee stuck in your mail room? Leaves falling from an oak tree? Voila). Do yourself a favor: slow down and pay attention.

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