The Columbian Exposition of 1893 is almost impossible to imagine: a spectacle of 200 gleaming white neoclassical buildings on over 600 acres in Chicago, a temporary city whose main purpose was instilling a sense of wonder with the world. Yet its relics are still out there to recall the fleeting “White City,” particularly in the Field Museum where some 50,000 objects from this world’s fair became the foundation of the museum’s collection when it opened in 1893.
Most of these objects, from articulated skeletons to ancient artifacts, are rarely now on display, but in Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair which opened last month at the Field Museum, many of these objects are being taken out of hiding to recreate the fascination of the fair. For most of the millions of people who attended the Columbian Exposition, it was their first time seeing things like the traditional Indonesian Gamelan instrument, or “experiencing” cultures not so far from home but still remote in the 19th century American imagination, like the Sioux. These “live displays” are likely one of the fair’s most controversial legacies — displays where actual humans lived in replicas of their cultures in sort of anthropological exhibitions — and these more complicated aspects of the event and the museum’s founding are also a part of the exhibition.
Paola Bucciol, exhibition project manager, told Hyperallergic that the Field Museum’s revival in this exhibition “shows how these first collections are still actively studied and growing.” Objects returning to the public eye in Opening the Vaults include a chunk of a legendary “cursed” meteorite, known as the Elbogen meteorite that crashed to Earth around the 15th century, with some believing it was actually a cruel count of Loket Castle in the present day Czech Republic turned to stone. It apparently had so much superstition attached to it that it was kept chained in the Loket castle dungeon.
There’s also the dramatic taxidermy of the influential Carl Akeley, who would continue working with the Field Museum after the fair. Less epic but also revealing are the little glass botanical bottles which were once used to exhibit new materials, and the ledger that logged the expenses of the massive fair. The array of objects presented at the fair, even just culled into this one exhibition, is still astonishing, and has endured through the Field Museum with its desire for understanding what this world is made of through its people, places, and artifacts.
Yet it wasn’t just the Field Museum that blossomed up from the fair. Of all the buildings constructed for the event, only two survive. One, the Palace of Fine Arts, held the Field Museum until its new home was opened in the 1920s, and is now the Museum of Science and Industry. The World’s Congress Auxiliary Building transformed into the Art Institute of Chicago. While much of the 1893 World’s Fair has faded into a memory only glimpsed in documentation, its history is inextricably still embedded in the museums of Chicago.
Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair is at the Field Museum (1400 S Lake Shore Drive, Chicago) through September 7, 2014.