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Museum Review: Lincoln Treasures/Chicago History Museum

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RECOMMENDEDabraham-lincoln-picture

The Chicago History Museum kicks off its yearlong celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th anniversary with “Lincoln Treasures.”  For just one month, the museum is hosting one of only five surviving copies of the Gettysburg Address.  The document is on loan from the Lincoln Presidential Library, and this is the last time it will travel outside of Springfield.  Written on two thin sheets of carefully-preserved, yellowed paper-the 272 word speech that made “four score and seven years ago” an American catchphrase is inscribed in the squat, precise script of Lincoln’s own hand.  To accommodate the swelling numbers of guests interested in seeing the famed speech, the museum has extended its morning hours on Sundays.  However, guests should not linger too close; the document is closely guarded and secured beneath an invisible alarm.  The remainder of the “Lincoln Treasures” exhibit is confined and scant on biographical details, instead serving as secondary adornment to the Gettysburg Address.  However, even the supporting artifacts will make history gurus salivate: several famed busts and molds of the sixteenth president, a first printing of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s deathbed, salvaged from the Peterson House across the street from Ford’s Theater. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Lincoln Treasures” is at the Chicago History Museum through August 16.  The Gettysburg Address is on display until May 3. 

Feathered Friends: Pillow Fight Day visits the Art Institute

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pillowThe Art Institute of Chicago has no idea what is about to hit it—a massive pillow fight, to be exact. Unbeknownst to most of the museum’s staff, the Chicago Pillow Fight Club has organized an event in honor of International Pillow Fight Day in front of their building.

Chicago’s Second Annual Pillow Fight could easily be quashed by the Art Institute’s security guards, but not if the event’s participants have anything to say about it. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Come Out Come Out Wherever You Are

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The Newberry Library’s latest exhibition, “Hidden Then Found: Women’s Stories from the Newberry Manuscript Collections,” is the result of happenstance. While the library’s special-collections curators were combing through Chicago Daily News reporter Robert J. Casey’s manuscripts, they had stumbled across his wife Hazel MacDonald’s work from the first half of the twentieth century. Realizing that MacDonald, as well as fellow journalists Kay Ashton-Stevens, Emily Hahn and Georgie Anne Geyer, deserve a chance in the spotlight, curators “thought it would be an interesting concept to feature their work and highlight their accomplishments,” says the exhibit’s curator Lisa Janssen. In honor of Women’s History Month, “Hidden Then Found” is a tribute to their struggles as well as their groundbreaking contributions in journalism. The exhibit, which runs through Saturday, showcases the women’s experiences through photographs, newspaper clippings and personal letters. The exhibit is part of the library’s Spotlight Series, “which highlights new materials that the Newberry Library has acquired,” Janssen says.

Tip of the Week: Real Pirates

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Many piqued by the Field’s latest exhibit are devotees of Disney-themed cinematic swashbuckling. These guests will not be disappointed by “Real Pirates,” which includes wax dummies, games and references aplenty to the squeaky clean facts from Gore Verbinski’s whirling dervish of a trilogy. However, these same guests may be taken aback by the Golden Age of Piracy, made golden only from pilfering the loot, ships, sailors and former slaves of the transatlantic slave trade. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry/Field Museum

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RECOMMENDED

With the Grainger Hall of Gems under renovation, the Field Museum has partnered with the National Jewelry Institute to present this one-room teaser chronicling the ancient bling of the Near and Middle East. The 130-piece exhibition, upstairs in the intimate Kimball and Brooker Gallery, bridges the gap between “then” and “now.” The entire exhibit has the feel of a small, sparsely lit display on Jeweler’s Row; one can’t help but coo at the rings and necklaces, partly hoping some are available for purchase. Gold, glazed quartz, ruby, garnet, shells and filigree—ancient jewelers, much like their modern counterparts, understood the human need to flaunt gemstones and precious metals as beautiful adornment. The Islamic world’s history of Muslim expansion is punctuated with earrings and bangles festooned with elaborate geometry, granulation and goldworking. Hammered gold and twisted wire bedecked the people of the Levant, while the crossroads of Mesopotamia utilized blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and Egyptian faience. The Greek writer Herodotus wrote, “Of all the troops, the Persians were adorned with the greatest magnificence…they glittered all over with gold,” reminding us that people have always adorned themselves with stunning jewelry, a fact that hasn’t changed much in the last 5,000 years. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Masterpieces of Ancient Jewelry: Exquisite Objects from the Cradle of Civilization” runs at the Field Museum, 1400 South Lake Shore, (312)922-9410, through July 5.

Season’s Greenings: Putting wrapping paper to use at the Notebaert Museum

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Each Christmas-Chanukah-Kwanzaa season, people spend hours wrapping presents for co-workers and bosses, neighbors and pets, paperboys and babysitters, favorite teachers, insurance adjusters and loved ones. Then, in a matter of a few short seconds, all that hard, heartfelt work and beautiful paper is cruelly slashed through and carelessly discarded, never to be used again. It’s a holiday tragedy of epic proportions. But, never fear, the Peggy Notebaert Museum is here.

“So many people throw away wrapping paper and we are trying to reduce what goes into the waste stream,” explains museum educator Kat Silverstein. “There is so much to do with wrapping paper instead of throwing it out.”

As part of its annual Gifting Green Holiday Recycling Program, the Nature Museum organizes the creation of a community wrapping-paper mural.

“It is partly to create something beautiful for ourselves and partly to show people how to re-use,” Silverstein elaborates.

Upstairs at the Peggy Notebaert Museum, it’s a workshop of post-holiday production. Kids flutter here, there and everywhere using recycled wrapping paper to fill in the colorful painting created by freelance museum educator Erik Peterson.

“I can touch the sky!” exclaims 4-year-old Noah Goldblatt as he uses bright blue Chanukah paper to decorate the sky of Peterson’s painting. “Well, not the sky outside, but this sky,” he dutifully corrects himself.

In another corner, 5-year-old Kalea abandons the paint-by-numbers structure of the community mural and uses wrapping paper to create a thank-you note for Mrs. Claus, perceptively sensing, perhaps, that she is often overlooked and under-appreciated.

“Dear Mrs. Claus, You are very nice. Thank you. Kiss Kiss Kiss,” it reads.

The community-wrapping-paper-mural, a work almost entirely dependent on the attention span of young museum-goers, often becomes a long-term project.

“The two murals we created last year took two weeks to finish,” says Peterson.

Understandably. Earth-saving and masterpiece-making can’t happen overnight. Fortunately, the museum is willing to put in the time.

“Green programs are our M.O. here,” says Silverstein. “We want to show people that there is nature in Chicago and that city-dwellers can be responsible for their own imprint.”

Practicing what they preach, the museum gets greener every day. They rely heavily on natural light, use solar panels, eat with environmentally friendly, made-from-potatoes cutlery and walk around on compostable carpet squares.

While Chicago does not yet have a comprehensive recycling program (“If New York can do it, we can do it,” says Silverstein), the mural project and all others like it at the museum demonstrate daily progress. (Meaghan Strickland)

Museum Review: Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan

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In 1909, Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett imagined the restructuring and beautification of a contemporary American city, “The Plan of Chicago.” A hundred years later, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Architectural Club and the Chicago History Museum have composed “Burnham 2.0.” This competition and exhibit takes “The Plan of Chicago” to the next level: in the new century, what would a utopian, sustainable and pluralistic Chicago look like as the hub of a high-speed rail network? The gallery space is small and simplistic, but the ideas within are big, dense and complex. Though some of the entries approach the challenge analytically, the majority are far-fetched, science-fiction speculations about utopias, heavy on the metaphors and light on plausibility. Joliet, Cicero and the fragmented districts of the Loop and South Side are given super-duper green makeovers. Vacant lots and auto dealerships are replaced with multifaceted parks and civic centers. Notable entries include a comic-book-style walk-through of a high-speed railway station and the replacement of the Presidential Towers with a series of gothic, counter-culture artist bungalows. The most impressive entry belongs to the winners of an international design competition, an imaginative yet realistic re-envisioning of Union Station as an intermodal transportation hub. (Laura Hawbaker)

“Burnham 2.0: A Patchwork Plan” runs at Chicago History Museum, 1601 North Clark, (312)642-4600, through April 12.

Museum review: The Aztec World

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A mask carved from a human skull, the nose and tongue skewered by ceremonial daggers. This artifact, on display at the Field’s exclusive and expansive new exhibit, “The Aztec World,” exemplifies the most shocking aspects of the Mesoamerican tribe that, in just 200 years, shaped the foundations of modern-day Mexico. Caricaturized in the popular media as brutal and blood-thirsty, the Aztecs were in actuality a deeply complex, sophisticated society fascinated with dyads: male and female, light and darkness, life and death. This assemblage of nearly 300 artifacts has been collected in collaboration with ten Mexican museums. The exhibit explores the stark and shocking duality of the Aztecs: an empire that embraced life through technical and artistic achievements, and death through ritual human sacrifice. Museum guests can view wares from the Great Aztec Market, which dwarfed its European counterparts, as well as large stone statues excavated from the “House of Eagles” and the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. Another artifact—a large, rabbit-shaped drinking vessel for the alcoholic pulque—exemplifies a little-known aspect of Aztec culture: a charming and whimsical sense of humor. The Aztecs saw a rabbit’s silhouette in the face of the moon, thereby associating rabbits with a popular nighttime activity: drunkenness. (Laura Hawbaker)
“The Aztec World” runs at the Field Museum, 1400 South Lake Shore, through April 19, 2009.

Museum review: In the Dark

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Just across the hall from the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s illustrious butterflies, darkness rules supreme. It is “In the Dark,” an exhibit dedicated to the slithering, flying, swimming creatures of the night. The space is broken up by environment: the darkness of the deep sea, the desert, caves, forests and the underground. Life-sized nature models are akin to three-dimensional “Where’s Waldo”s; guests are encouraged to spot the stuffed flying squirrel, the sidewinder snake, the cave crayfish or the katydid. To make up for a lack of live fauna, “In the Dark” is jam-packed with kinesthetic games and puzzles. Guests learn about bat sonar by attempting to navigate a dark cave using only echoes, or balance atop a wobbling platform to learn about the statocysts of jellyfish. Match the Morse-code-like patterns of fireflies with their corresponding species. Catch a rat using infrared receptors via a rattlesnake hand puppet. Each interactive activity is linked by a common theme: a phenomenal ability to evolve, to develop heightened senses and compensate for a world without sight. (Laura Hawbaker)

“In the Dark” runs at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 North Cannon Drive, through January 11, 2009.

Fall Forward preview: Beat It, Columbia College does Kerouac

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When Jack Kerouac began the marathon writing session that produced “On the Road,” he connected twelve-foot-long hunks of paper end to end so he could feed a continuous stream of paper into his typewriter. What emerged was one of the great works of the countercultural Beat Generation of the 1950s. This October, the original manuscript comes to Columbia College’s Book and Paper Arts Center, where it will serve as the centerpiece of two months of programming. “And the Beats Go On” will include film screenings, performances, exhibitions and a symposium October 10-11 on the Beat Generation.

The symposium’s main organizer is Tony Trigilio, a professor in Columbia’s English Department and an executive board member of the Beat Studies Association, an international scholarly organization. “We wanted to have a conference for scholars who work in the field,” he explains. “That was right when I found out that the Kerouac scroll was going to be here at Columbia.” For many reasons, now seems like a perfect time to look back at the Beats. In the past ten years, according to Trigilio, “There’s been a convergence of new ideas on the Beats, new ways of looking at the Beats.” The stereotype of the Beat writer, what Trigilio calls “the guy in the beret with the bongo drums,” is being challenged by modern scholars. “I didn’t say the woman in the beret,” Trigilio points out. “For years people just assumed that the Beats were all men.” Now poets like Joanne Kyger and Diane Diprima —both of whom will give readings at the symposium—are getting their due. Panels on diversity will also include questions about race, according to Trigilio: “What was going on in beat communities with writers who were people of color, what were they doing, what were their artistic relationships like?” And of course, one entire panel will be devoted to the book at the center of it all. “‘On the Road’ really was able to marry popularity and experimental writing in a way that you don’t usually get in the arts,” says Trigilio. Perhaps that’s why, fifty years later, we’re still talking about it. (Sam Feldman)

“And the Beat Go On,” October 10-11, Columbia College’s Book and Paper Arts Center