Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair Exhibition Walk Through

Opening Gallery

The opening gallery captures the sheer scope and size of the fair – it was huge, it was expensive, it was beautiful and exciting. Collections came from all over the world at a time when the world was viewed as one vast resource. People saw things they had never seen before: taxidermy and animal skeletons, fossils, meteorites, artifacts from ancient cultures, raw materials from South America and Asia.

In the exhibition’s first gallery, archival photographs and large scale projections give a sense of what it was like to visit the fair. Visitors will see tickets to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the fair’s financial ledger, the charter of the Field Columbian Museum (today’s Field Museum), the first ticket sold to the Museum, and a sword (yes, a sword!), part of the uniform for exposition guards which were later reused as Museum guard uniforms.

Beauty and Appreciation

Animal skeletons and taxidermy helped to provide a glimpse of places where most World’s Fair visitors could never travel. In this section of the exhibition, visitors will see an array of large taxidermied animals, including a lion, and of articulated skeletons of fish, reptiles, and mammals.  

This gallery introduces Carl Akeley, who worked for Ward’s Scientific Establishment (one of the fair’s exhibitors). After the fair ended, he came to work at the Field Columbian Museum where he continued to pioneer the art of taxidermy. Today, Akeley’s animal dioramas are famous in museums around the country, and his exploits in the field are the stuff of legend. (One of the photographs in the gallery shows him standing next to a leopard he killed with his bare hands!) 

Scientists continue to study the Field Museum Zoology collections dating back to 1893 conducting research that is possible only with historical collections.

Demonstrating Natural Resources

The botany collections at the World’s Fair were intended to demonstrate the resources available in other countries and United States. For example, nations sent samples of woods, fibers, resins, oils, and seeds. Visitors will see an apothecary-like display with botanical samples still in their original containers that illustrate the sheer mass and variety of what was presented at the fair.

Many of these things are commonplace today but had never been seen before by most people in the late 19th century. For instance, Chicago’s own Wrigley Company introduced Juicy Fruit gum at the fair; gum was made from a resin called chicle, on display in this section.

Understanding and Misunderstanding

Throughout the World’s Columbian Exposition, displays captured the public’s enthusiasm for science, though many of the displays were presented as curiosities. Superstition lingered in the displays of these objects, like fossilized worms called Gnome’s Candles. 

Meteorites are also on display, as are minerals and crystals in a rainbow array of colors, and large fossils from prehistoric animals. There was only one dinosaur on display at the fair. It was part of the Museum’s founding collections, but was so inaccurate that (according to rumor) it got tossed out.

Displaying other cultures: issues and changes

The World’s Columbian Exposition brought the World to Chicago—in every sense. The 1893 World’s Fair was the first time most visitors were exposed to people of non-European cultures. Here, visitors see artifacts from America’s past and from different cultural villages featured at the fair.

Anthropologists and the general public’s approach to non-Western cultures reflected the time, and was quite different from today. This section addresses how the study of other cultures has changed since the late 19th century, and continues to change.

Highlights include a large Samoan drum, Peruvian mummies, and a Javanese gamelan. Used in performances at the Java (now called Indonesia) Village on the Midway, the gamelan is made up of several different musical instruments and requires scores of musicians to play; it is displayed along with an interactive that allows visitors to hear it and experiment themselves.  Another interactive will allow visitors to explore the Peruvian mummies through their CT scans.

Conclusion

The exhibition’s closing gallery features photographs of the fair and today’s Field Museum.  This space gives visitors the opportunity to reflect upon the past and see how the legacy of the fair lives on through present day research, exhibitions, and the continued importance of the collections.

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