The wild-eyed stare, bristling mane and yellowed fangs of the taxidermied lion stopped me in my tracks. It wasn’t the beast’s size and ferocity that captivated me, but the idea that this was the first lion ever encountered by millions who visited the Chicago 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Photo © The Field Museum.
Likewise, when I came face to face with an ancient mummy, I realized that for 19th-century fairgoers, this wrapped person was a window into an ancient past they may never have imagined before.
The Field Museum’s Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair  puts today’s visitors amid the marvels that rocked fairgoers 121 years ago. “This fair put Chicago on the international map for the first time and changed the world’s future, inspiring so many artists, architects and scientists,” says Paola Bucciol, exhibition project manager.
The Midway skyline was dominated by a 250-foot Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by engineer George Ferris. ©The Field Museum, GN90799d_WFWC_16
The woolly mammoth and giant octopus models were on display at the World's Fair; visitors will see the same octopus in the current exhibit. ©The Field Museum, GN90799d_CG_110w
The museum—founded in 1893 to house the fair's natural science and anthropology collections— re-creates the wow factor through displays of 230 of the 50,000 fair pieces the museum amassed after the six-month exhibition. Many of the pieces had not been removed from the Field’s vaults until this exhibit opened.
Multimedia, such as projections of historical photographs, transport visitors to the grand, classical-style white buildings created just 22 years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. A diorama timeline puts the global impact in context. A 4-foot-long, hand-written ledger documents—down to each light bulb’s cost—the business of organizing a profitable event.
Just like the original visitors, today’s guests view brightly colored gamelan instruments from Indonesia as well as Javanese masks performers wore in reconstructed "native" villages on the Midway. Visitors paid to enter the villages and watch costumed peoples from around the world perform. For many, it was the first time they had seen non-Western cultures.
Photos © The Field Museum.
The exposition had many other firsts. Fair-goers could sample new foods like Juicy Fruit gum, ride on the original Ferris wheel and marvel at electric lights illuminating the night sky. Some items were revered, like electricity; others were feared, like a meteorite that at one time was chained to a church’s basement floor.
Though Ferris wheels, mummies, exotic musical instruments and lions are no longer novel, this intriguing exhibit encourages us to put aside our modern viewpoints to see the world with wonder again.
The world’s fair exhibit runs through September 7, 2014, and is not included in museum general admission. Exhibit tickets start at $25, with discounts available for children, students and seniors.
Read more of Kit’s travel adventures at www.KitTravels.com .
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