Published: July 29, 2017

Beautiful Strangers: Stories of People and Collections

Gretchen Rings, Reference and Interlibrary Loan Librarian, Library

Museum librarians get some interesting requests—and they have some of the best stories. 

Black and white photograph of a woman in a floral dress with a large bird on her hand, and a small child smiling and standing at her side

The romance of the Museum is palpable: rising from the ashes of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the story of the Museum’s origins is well known. And yet, there are many strange tales that are left to be fully told, or that resurface in surprising ways.

Some of these stories and secrets come to light at Members’ Nights at the Field, an annual tradition that we’ve continued for 66 years to date. Staff view these back-to-back May nights with a mixture of both excitement and some trepidation. It’s intensely satisfying to tell the stories of the Museum by throwing open the vaults and revealing obscure collections of dinosaur fossils excavated by bone hunters of the 1800s, plant specimens collected on Captain Cook’s voyages, and ancient books illustrating cabinets of curiosities. 

However, conveying these stories on behalf of the long line of founders, scientists, adventurers, librarians, and socialites that nurtured the Museum to this point can also feel like a heavy burden at times, and one that carries immense responsibility and some frustration at what is no longer known or may never have been known. 

A piece of the Museum’s history returned to us in 2014, when the Library and Archives acquired a manuscript journal of Daniel Giraud Elliot’s. Elliot was the curator of the Department of Zoology (except ornithology, then a separate division) in 1896, and his journal recorded the Field Museum’s first zoological collecting expedition to Africa. (Incidentally, this was the first such expedition to be organized by a North American museum; many of the specimens remain on display in public areas of the Museum). 

A colorized photo of a man with disheveled hair and arm in a sling, looking at a dead leopard hanging upside down.

Elliot’s journal verified the legend of Carl Akeley and the leopard depicted in this photo, which Akeley had allegedly suffocated with his bare hands. But the manuscript was no longer held by the Field: early important figures who left the Museum for other institutions, such as Akeley when he departed for the American Museum of Natural History in 1909, often took most of their papers, field notebooks, illustrations, and ephemera with them. (Later policy sought to change this practice and requires scientists to deposit their papers with the Museum.)  A piece of paper with a handwritten menu in French and a drawing of two flags at the top.

The Elliot journal was discovered among other manuscript materials by a London bookseller who contacted the Library asking if we would like first rights to bid on the journal since it was attached to the history of the Museum. Once the manuscript arrived from England, the staff discovered an extra treat: tucked inside they found a handwritten menu of a meal enjoyed by the members of the expedition in celebration of July 4, 1896, replete with cigars and scotch whiskey. Currently, the Library is working on a transcription of the Elliot journal in order to make this important, first-hand account of a piece of the Museum’s history more readily accessible to the public. 

In many ways, we’ve come to expect the unexpected in the Library and Archives. A typical day on the job may bring:

Reading in miniature

A small book, held in the palm of a hand, depicting monkeys in a cage

A visit from a miniaturist bookmaker from Amsterdam in town for a conference, interested in viewing Audubon’s Birds of America and accompanying ottoman in order to recreate them in doll-house size perfection.

Fungi inspiration

A request to view a book that will inspire the creation of a hand-stitched 135" rug embroidered with examples of mycorrhizal fungi.

Beautiful birds 

Painting of a bird's head in profile. Bird is blue with a large beak and protrusion above the beak.

A group of artists to see the Louis Agassiz Fuertes collection of exquisite paintings and illustrations from the 1926 Field Museum-Chicago Daily News Abyssinian Expedition.

Requests have also included: viewing a handwritten catalog detailing the largest collection of Inca antiquities held outside Peru, and information about a map that’s been long-held in the family and cherished and was once produced by the Museum to accompany the Malvina Hoffman exhibition. 

Disappointment coexists with possibility, and it is not one-sided. At times, we have to politely but firmly turn away hopeful inquiries from the public as well as researchers asking if the Museum not only documented, but also kept every possible item from the World’s Columbian Exposition (and beyond, but particularly the WCE). (No, the Museum did not have, nor ever did have, the following items, which are all actual requests for information and viewing: the first electric chair; a dress made entirely of glass; images and records of a freak show.) Conversely, Museum staff are sometimes disappointed when a lead on a possible donation goes cold, as in the recent case of an offer of lantern slides from the World’s Columbian Exposition that never materialized.

Ultimately, as Museum staff, our purpose is to continue to carry the torch of knowledge already extracted and exposed, while also forging ahead with new research and discovery. In this work, sometimes it feels like we commune with the dead, but more often than not we are turning over rocks that reveal nothing. As much as we’d like them to, and much as the public asks it of us, the photos and objects cannot talk back to us. And so, on Members’ Nights, as well as year-round, we bring volumes from the climate-controlled Rare Book Room or objects from the darkness within drawers, and lovingly place them on a book pillow or under a vitrine or out in the open for display, and begin the work of trying to extract and share meaning, context, and truth. Because, ultimately, these rare books, shells, insects, mammals, and photos of unknowable, beautiful strangers—they belong to us all. They tell the stories of our planet as well as our humanity—at times heroic and other times less so. And as staff, we’re here for a short time in a long line as their caretakers.