Archive for the ‘Museum’ Category

By Ruthanna Gordon

There’s not necessarily a lot of art, or a lot of science, in moving.  Possibly the science of calculating exactly how many boxes it will take to hold a book collection, or the art of packing everything neatly enough that it won’t collapse in transit.

Hi.  My house is full of bubble wrap, my e-mail is full of well-meant advice about DC area housing, and I’m trying to figure out how to say goodbye to the Chicago science scene.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and unwilling to settle on just one of Chicago’s many bits of scientific coolness to write about, so I’m going to mention a few favorites.  Whether you live here and haven’t seen everything yet, or are just thinking you might visit some day, these are my recommended highlights from seven years of sporadic sampling:

The Field’s Evolving Planet is, bar none, the best museum exhibit I’ve ever visited.  The visitor walks through the history of life on earth, from the first organic compounds to modern Homo sapiens, all illustrated by selections from the Field’s massive fossil collection.  At intervals, floor-to-ceiling red slashes mark mass extinctions and tell you about their possible causes.  Fossils are supplemented with models and multimedia—I’ve linked in the past to their amazing Burgess Shale aquarium.  There’s also a mock-up Carboniferous forest with giant dragonflies.  The fossils themselves are impressive.  I’m particularly fond of the Tully Monster, which is Illinois’s state fossil for the simple reason that it’s never been found anywhere else.  (And there’s a Sesame Street pun that I missed entirely when I was a kid!)

Also in the Field: the unpresupposing Rocks & Minerals exhibit includes a sheet of fossilized rain.

On my last visit to the Shedd Aquarium, I discovered something that I’d somehow managed to miss previously: the Wild Reef exhibit.  The Caribean Reef, just behind the entry hall, gives the impression that reefs are mostly about fish.  The larger downstairs exhibit, by contrast, shows off their full diversity.  I found these guys the coolest, and creepiest:

They’re called garden eels.

The Notebaert Nature Museum is smaller than the Field or MSI, and aimed largely at kids.  But unlike the Field or MSI, it has a butterfly house.  And it has a window where you can watch the cocoons that will eventually produce new butterflies.  Usually, one or two are in the process of hatching.

Beyond museums, there are many places in Chicago that get at the joy of discovery that’s at the heart of science.  The North Park Village Nature Center is a great place to learn about, and observe, the local ecology.  They hold regular events and classes, and in the Spring they have a maple syrup festival.  Much like butterflies, maple syrup is something that I appreciated for years without ever getting to see it produced.  At the nature center I got to see all the steps of the process, and taste the very faintly flavored, almost rainy sap as it came out of the tree.

You wouldn’t think a giant ferris wheel had a lot to do with science—careful calculations are needed to keep it from falling over, of course, but they don’t really enter into your experience riding it.  The ten-story wheel at Navy Pier, though, is one of many leftovers from the 1893 World’s Fair, a hugely optimistic celebration of scientific potential that still permeates the city’s culture.  Like many of the fair leftovers, this wheel is not the original, having been rebuilt 100 years later along stronger, more modern, and more corporately sponsored lines—as well as smaller ones.  Similarly, several of the city’s museums are modeled on fair buildings, but made from more durable materials.  Although 21st century Chicagoans are more aware of technology’s pitfalls, we haven’t let go of the hope that science can still create a better world.

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Post by Vijayalakshmi “Viji” Kalyanaraman and Henderson

Edited by Alison Whyte

We can add years to our treasured possessions’ lives by using simple techniques such as avoiding direct sunlight and extreme changes in humidity, but how about the priceless works of art found in museums?  This is the focus of the professional art conservator.

Art conservation is the profession dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage.  Conservators study and preserve art and artifacts using various analytical procedures to understand the age and composition of an object as well as any physical changes that might have occurred over time.  They use methods and treatments that stabilize (slow the process of degradation) an object so it can be preserved for a longer time.

Integral to the profession of art conservation is thorough record keeping and documentation.  The condition of the object, before and after conservation treatment, is recorded in both photographic and written formats and any treatment undertaken is fully described.  Conservators also advise on the proper storage and display parameters for the objects in their care so as to prevent damage and minimize the need for interventive treatments.

Art conservation is perhaps not as well known compared to other fields like medicine or archaeology.  This may be due in part to the fact that high schools and universities don’t place as much emphasis on its practice.

Alison Whyte is an art conservator for the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, where she specializes in the preservation of archaeological material from the ancient Near East.

Alison Whyte, Art Conservator for the Oriental Institute Museum. Photograph courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

MASI sat down with Alison to understand why art conservation is such an important field, and what state-of-the-art tools she is using to help the Oriental Institute Museum study and preserve material culture.

Alison’s interest in ancient art was sparked by a visit to “The Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibit with her parents over 30 years ago.  In high school, she became interested in both archaeology and forensics.  After majoring in anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Alison obtained a Masters in Ancient Studies from the University of Toronto and then finally a Masters of Art Conservation from Queens University (Canada).

“I started out my career path in archaeology but then I realized that I was more interested in the hands-on approach of a laboratory setting.  I was much happier taking care of the objects (art conservation) than searching for them (archaeology).  I had these early interests in art history, archaeology and forensic science.  Then I found out about art conservation and it seemed like the perfect combination of these interests,” Alison said.

Blending disciplines such as art history, archaeology and chemistry, art conservation also closely follows advancements in the medical and forensics fields.  Combined, these specialties help art conservators identify the chemical composition and describe the structure of an object.  This information helps the art conservator to make decisions regarding the appropriate course of action in preserving the artifact.

Oriental Institute Conservation Lab.  Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute

Two important elements in art conservation are (1) creating and maintaining a suitable display or storage environment for the object, and (2) arresting decay in the object.

In the former, great care is taken to ensure that the optimal temperature and relative humidity are maintained for the specific material.  Exposure to light and pollutants are also minimized.  Alison considers preventing damage and decay of the artifacts as one of the biggest challenges that conservators face, especially since different materials may require different environmental conditions.

In the latter, treatments sometimes include “undoing” restoration procedures carried out at an earlier period when there was little understanding of what materials should be used to conserve an object.  For example, some adhesives used in the past to reconstruct artifacts do not age well and can, in fact, end up causing damage.  Also, acid treatments used in the past on ancient metal objects stripped their corrosion layers in an effort to make them look new.  Today we understand that some corrosion layers can actually protect the metal underneath and may also contain important information about the past.

Conservators apply several laboratory techniques — from visual inspection to X-rays to scanning electron microscopy — to understand the nature of materials in detail.

“We first observe the object by visual inspection, then under the microscope for finer details,” says Alison.  “Corrosion layers growing on the surface of an archaeological metal object can replace and take the shape of organic material in the vicinity.  An example might be a leather scabbard buried in contact with an iron blade.  The leather may completely degrade until there is nothing left and yet be ‘recorded’ so to speak in the morphology of the corrosion layers growing on the iron blade.  This kind of thing is often only visible under the microscope.”

These analytical processes can also yield much information about how an object was made, what it may have been used for, and even what kinds of pigments were used to decorate its surfaces.

There are challenges posed in each step of the conservation process, depending on the type of material being studied.  But for Alison, this is where conservation gets exciting.

“I like the fact that every object is different and each problem creates a new challenge.  One has to be creative sometimes in the approach and it is rewarding when a particular method of conservation is successful.  Also, the study of ancient technology is fascinating!”

To find out more about art conservation, check out the American Institute for Conservation‘s website.

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Post by Ruthanna Gordon

My parents would never have considered visiting a city without checking out the museums. So I suspect I got exposed to them rather younger than most. On the other hand, a friend just announced proudly that his not-quite-2-year-old loves the chick hatchery at the Museum of Science and Industry. So maybe I’m not as weird as I thought.

I have a clear memory of staring, awestruck and terrified, at a 15-ton meteorite in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. I was about 7; in my mind, this was the comet that had killed the dinosaurs. Somehow, this didn’t scare me away from my fascination with space science. A few years later, I recall staring with equal fascination at a model of the as-yet-unbuilt International Space Station, tacked on to the end of a Science of Star Trek experiment. Oh! This stuff is real! If they need a cognitive scientist up there, I’m still game.

What are your best (or scariest) museum memories? What exhibits stand out years later?

Me, I’m waiting eagerly for the day my son is old enough to go on a Field Museum sleepover. I also grew up on From the Mixed-Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweller, so a night in the Hall of Dinosaurs sounds like the perfect memory.

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Dr. Emily Teeter Egyptologist and Research Associate at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.


Interview Conducted by Henderson

Dr. Emily Teeter has been in love with museums ever since she could remember.  Her mother, a docent, would take her children from museum to museum and expose them to the newest wonders of the ancient world.

One of the most memorable of these visits came in 1962, at the Seattle Art Museum, when the Treasures of Tutankhamun traveling exhibit came to town.

One of the world’s most popular exhibits in the early 60’s, Emily Teeter was one of just over a million people with a front row seat to Egyptian magnificence, featuring some of the best examples of Egyptian culture to date and including the pristinely preserved gold death mask of the “boy king.”

After that, I guess you could say she was hooked.  From that point on, Dr. Emily Teeter has been working to unlock the secret lives of the ancient Egyptians.

The Mobius Art & Science Initiative welcomes Dr. Teeter and her life-long experiences in unlocking the past.

MASI: What were your childhood experiences in museums?

Dr. Teeter:I was always around museums…


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Join us for in-depth discussions next week on Museums and Conserving the Past.

The Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago is a world-renowned showcase for the history, art, and archaeology of the ancient Near East.

Dr. Emily Teeter joins MASI on Monday to discuss her role in re-imagining how our ancient ancestors lived, worked, and socialized and the teamwork that goes into creating a museum exhibit.  She will also speak about the roles of art and science  in ancient Egypt.

Alison Whyte will provide her insights on working with faculty and staff to produce a museum exhibit, and what types of conservation techniques the museum is using.

Emily Teeter

Emily Teeter is an Egyptologist and Research Associate at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. She received a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1990. Her area of specialization includes the history and religion of second millennium B.C. Egypt with emphasis upon popular religion and cult ritual. She has participated in expeditions at Giza, Luxor and Alexandria.

Emily Teeter. Egyptologist and Research Associate - Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Emily is the author of a wide range of scholarly and popular articles and has served as a consultant for permanent installations of ancient Egyptian art at the Oriental Institute, the Seattle Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.  She has been a consultant for numerous television and productions and multi-media projects.  She also services as the ARCE Chicago Advisor and OI Representative.

Alison Whyte

Alison Whyte holds a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia, a M.A. in Ancient Studies from the University of Toronto, and a M.A. in Art Conservation from Queen’s University.  Alison is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation and works as an objects conservator at the Oriental Institute Museum where she specializes in the preservation of archaeological material from the ancient Near East.

Alison Whyte, Art Conservator for the Oriental Institute Museum. Photo courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

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