Travel Back to the World's Fair in Our Collection
By Sheila Evans, Public Relations intern and biology student at Purdue University
The four stars on Chicago’s flag represent important events in our city’s history: a fort, a fire, and two fairs. One of those fairs is the World’s Columbian Exposition, which also happens to be a key moment in Field Museum history. Chicago hosted the 1893 event in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the “New World.” Over six months, the fair drew 27 million people—a quarter of America’s population at the time—to Chicago.
The fair was a showcase of innovation, art, architecture, and different cultures from around the world. It was almost like a museum too big to fit in one building—and some started talking about forming a permanent museum (that’s us!) before the fair even started. After the World’s Columbian Exposition ended, about 50,000 items from its exhibits eventually became the start of our collection. Some of these original objects and specimens are on display today, serving not only as scientific or cultural records, but also representing the Museum’s history.
Monumental carvings tell stories from British Columbia
When you first walk into the museum, you can’t help but notice the monumental totem poles that stand over 20 feet tall. The Haida people of British Columbia created these intricate red cedar carvings of different figures, telling local stories or a family history.
One focus of the World’s Fair was to showcase cultures from around the world through their art, artifacts, and even live performances of dance, music, and ceremonies. These totem poles were purchased for the fair, and we recently collaborated with Haida museum professionals to reinterpret them. Anthropology research and collections staff actively collaborate with descendants of the collections’ makers to care for and co-curate the cultural items here at the Field. Additionally, we work to return human remains, funerary objects, and significant ceremonial objects in accordance with US law and Museum policy.
Llama bring you to the World’s Fair
This llama figure from the Emilio Montes collection has a gold alloy head and copper alloy body. It was reportedly found near the Inca Shrine of Huanacauri in Cuzco, Peru. Llamas played an important role in Inca culture, and llama figures were commonly buried with Inca child sacrifices on mountain peaks. Llamas were a primary source of wool (along with their finer-haired cousins, alpacas), an important source of meat, and the primary beast of burden in the Inca economy. This llama can be found in Robert R. McCormick Halls of the Ancient Americas.
Masks of the Northwest Coast
This mask, crafted on Vancouver Island, depicts Tsonoqua, a figure from Kwakwaka'wakw mythology. The 1893 World’s Fair intended to showcase non-Western cultures as a contrast to the industrialized and supposedly “advanced” West. This approach fell out of favor as anthropologists learned more about the rich, complex, and sophisticated ways of life of Indigenous peoples. More recently, Indigenous people themselves have resisted others representing them and have claimed a voice in museums to tell their stories. They continue to value the incredible heritage from their homelands in the Museum. See this mask and others in the Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples.
Engraved diamond pin fit for a king
While you may need to squint to see this miniature carved portrait, it isn’t hard to see the beauty of this sparkling diamond stick pin. It took five years to carve this portrait of King William II of Holland. Why so long? The fine beard hairs and features of the king had to be hand-carved. And since diamonds are one of the hardest materials on Earth, the only way to carve a diamond is to use another diamond. This beautiful pin was first shown at the 1878 Paris Exhibition, where Tiffany & Company bought the gem and later displayed it in the 1893 World’s Fair. The Grainger Hall of Gems showcases not only carved works of art but also precious materials in their natural state.
Giant papier-mâché marine life
Life-sized marine models welcome you overhead in the entrance to What is an Animal? In a time before well-stocked zoos or aquariums, the taxidermy and models shown at the fair were some of the few ways people could see exotic wild animals. This was especially true in 1893 at the World’s Fair but still holds true today—think about animals here at the museum that you haven’t seen close-up before, or perhaps are even extinct today.
Delicate glass models of an underwater world
Alongside shells and other specimens, spot exquisite glass models—many of them are very small!—throughout What is an Animal? Father-son duo Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka made all the glass models you see in the exhibition. Coming from a lineage of glassmakers, the Blaschkas created models of our natural world that are not only beautiful but also scientifically accurate. They acted as important teaching tools—and still do today. Many of the models dazzled visitors at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The World’s Fair was a whale of a time
Imagine living in an area that is landlocked and seeing an enormous right whale skeleton at the 1893 World’s Fair. Ward’s Natural Science Establishment brought train cars full of natural history specimens to the fair, and the Field purchased them as the foundation of our collections (which have grown thanks to expeditions that started just after the Museum opened and continue today). Look for this awe-inspiring whale in Animal Biology. These animals are some of the largest on Earth and can grow up to 60 feet long. The whale hangs above a collection of other mammal skeletons that are also originally from the 1893 World’s Fair. Skeletons from species that are still alive today can inspire people to look into conservation efforts. Save the whales!
Extinct elephant relative roamed Illinois
A mastodon skeleton towered over visitors at the World’s Fair in 1893. While the skeleton may have seemed exotic to spectators at the time, mastodons were native to North America and their remains are commonly found in Illinois. This specimen is a composite of many different individuals, meaning that the bones may have come from different regions. See this Illinois native in the Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet among other surprising early North American animals. Visitors from 1893 and today are fascinated by fossils that inspire interest in exploring previous life.
We started our collection with objects from the World’s Fair 125 years ago, and now it’s grown to include nearly 40 million objects and specimens. Plus, our scientists are still traveling around the world, constantly learning more about life on Earth. These original collections are still important as we study and learn from them through modern research. Over 125 years, our mission has remained much the same: discovering more about our planet and all the life on it, a goal that's apparent in both our modern collections and items all the way back from 1893.