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Chicagoland’s Museum Campus

My third day in Chicagoland was spent exploring the many museums at Museum Campus, located at the edge of Lake Michigan. This sprawling hub of gorgeous architecture, vastly green parks, and lakeside breezes encapsulates some of the city’s most popular attractions, including:


Each place offers its own flavor, experience and history, as well as proves Chicagoland’s intellectual prowess in the American Midwest. 

The first rule of thumb when organizing your museum day in Chicagoland is to start early, damn it, start as early as you can muster. Many of the museums don’t open until 9 a.m. anyway, but it’s beating the lines that form super early that counts. Furthermore, Chicago in summer is a place and time in which everyone is visiting from literally everywhere. So when meandering through population-overload, timing is everything.

The Shedd Aquarium

My first stop was The Shedd Aquarium. Once I got through the lines, I was welcomed by a hamlet of colorful fish and an incredible history and mission sealed tight with sustainable practices.

The beautiful Shedd Aquarium is home to 32,000 aquatic, amphibious and jungle-dwelling species. Although all creatures who reside there come with a fascinating story, there were a couple that especially stood out to me. One such creature was the Arapaima or “pirarucu” or “paiche”: a man-eating fish that requires air to breathe, can grow up to nine feet in length and are so vicious that even their tongues have teeth. I read about this freighting carnivorous fish in a national bestseller about our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt.

That bestseller was “The River of Doubt”. The book explores a world of endless fear, man-hunting creatures and near death experiences that the American President and his team of ambitious men would face during the most grueling exploration of their lives. Their adventure took them on a surveying tour of the, then, uncharted territory of the Amazon Rainforest. At this time, around 1912, the people of the world did not yet consider the forest to be a “green desert”, which is how we know it today. Since the 1960’s, tree plantations have eroded, biodiversity has been eliminated and human displacement has occured. What little did President Roosevelt know, aside from the experience relayed to him by his co-commander and soon-to-be great friend, Cândido Rondon (a famous explorer of Brazil), that what awaited him and his team was an unruly ecosystem of brilliant flora and fauna. This Amazonian world has worked together in a magical process of adaptation, survival of the fittest and all in harm’s way for 55 million years. The Arapaima is the world’s largest freshwater fish and is also the largest freshwater fish at Shedd Aquarium. 

Another creature I found to be gripping, was the Australian lungfish; a perfect specimen that illustrates the evolution of our world without error. The lungfish is unique for its ability to breathe air using just one lung, which has proven especially useful during stagnant and dry periods in climate. Furthermore, the fish’s ancestor was found in a 380 million year-old fossil that related it to the ancestors of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles.  The Shedd Aquarium was also home to the world’s oldest lungfish in captivity – they called him Granddad. He was euthanized for complications associated with old age in early 2017. Granddad was a special sort because he came from the 1893 Chicago World Fair and lived to be about 100 years old. The lungfish typically lives a 20-25 year lifespan. When I was visiting the museum this summer, the aquarium had a sign posted in tribute to their beloved lungfish, Granddad.

The Shedd Aquarium is a product of the great building boom of the American 1920’s. Its architects, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, led the way in commercial architecture and built the aquarium for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which would reign a wonderfully long influence in America to today. At the time, it was the largest aquarium in the world and the first ever inland saltwater exhibit – it featured dolphins, groupers, and green moray eels that wowed attendees from all over the globe. Two men died building this structure and five more would become seriously injured when a crane’s boom dropped and pinned the men underneath it. But the aquarium would far exceed the original plans of its creator, John G. Shedd, who never envisioned it with its Abott Oceanarium that is now home to Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and a particular sea lion named Cruz who was blinded by commercial fishermen in Santa Cruz, California. Shedd took in Cruz after he was rescued and rehabilitated by The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. You can learn more about the history of the Shedd Aquarium in one of my favorite books “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.

As mentioned before, the facility’s efforts are structured around eco-friendly options of everything sustainable. The water used throughout the facility is rainwater captured by a system that feeds it to the facility’s chilling tower. Also, the entire structure is surrounded by green gardens that have been landscaped to include only native plants in order to promote the growth and abundance of regional wildlife. The soil used in these gardens are composted perishable products obtained from the museums trash receptacles and they even go further by using crushed cocoa purchased from local Chicago chocolate businesses. And great of all is that despite its size, the aquarium makes its own energy that’s used to cool the tanks of its large water mammals- belugas and dolphins. The energy is collected by large solar panels installed on the rooftop of the aquarium. 

Oh yeah, and the aquarium has a 4D theater, which at first I didn’t understand  until I experienced it. Not only are the objects and characters in the film jumping at you in 3D, but when a whale or dolphin breathes through its blowhole, the theater uses a water system to simultaneously spray you with water. Even when a scene showed the dolphins underwater, the theater produced bubbles, yes, real life bubbles, that floated all about us as if we were underwater ourselves. 

Lastly, the Aquarium puts on an animal performance, which isn’t anything like a circus or something you’d see at SeaWorld. Rather, this performance is a way to exhibit the natural and technical abilities of the creatures – something you’d see them do in the wild if they were still there. Unlike SeaWorld, big ass orcas aren’t beaching themselves in nature and waving to passerby humans, that’s something SeaWorld is training to make their whales do. But at Shedd, the Pacific white-sided dolphins are incredible jumpers and do it all of the time as play and performance in their natural and wild habitats. In fact, the training program at Shedd is highly renowned and regarded and uses a philosophy of positive reinforcement. According to the trainers, when an animal makes a mistake or does something it doesn’t usually do, it’s simply ignored, rather than disciplined or rewarded. When the animal does something it should, the behavior is reinforced with food and treats- a reward. You’ve seen this philosophy practiced on Cesar’s “The Dog Whisperer”, to those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about – that’s context.

The Adler Planetarium

Aside from the breakdown of the moon from the stars and so on and so forth, Adler had a consistent dedication to the upcoming total solar eclipse happening August 21, 2017. What makes this solar eclipse especially special to the folks of Adler is that the sun is specifically traversing the middle of the United States; the last time this occurred was in 1918. The next time a total eclipse will occur over North America is in 2024.

According to the research presented at Adler, a total solar eclipse can be physically experienced on a cosmic scale. “The wind picks up. Wildlife goes quiet. The temperature drops. The sunlight slowly dims in the middle of the day, bathing the surroundings in an eerie twilight. You feel alive. You feel in awe. You feel a primitive fear. Then: totality. In this moment, there is just you and the Universe.”

A key feature of the planetarium that I highly, highly recommend experiencing is the live-narrated showing of “Destination Solar System”. The show is narrated by an actual astrological researcher and PhD and gives you an all encompassing experience of our physical spot here in the universe. The showing is depicted in state-of-the-art digital rendering and uses all of the most advanced technologies and softwares to tell “our story”. 

A special exhibit that may or may not be there when you arrive, as I believe it’s a traveling exhibit, is “Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass”. The exhibit tells the story of our human interest to the stars and how we’ve been studying the mysterious skies for thousands of years. But most astonishing is that we’ve been studying the skies without telescopes up until 400 years ago. Throughout the exhibit is an unworldly collection of celestial objects, some blunt, some brutish and some absolutely beautiful. At a particular point in the exhibit I read about star reading during medieval times –

“People traveled for various reasons- to visit holy places, to buy and sell goods at fairs and to visit friends and relatives. Sundials with a fixed shadow caster tell the correct time at only one latitude. Travelers used special adjustable sundials so that they could tell the time in cities at different latitudes. A Parisian traveling to Rome would have to adjust the angle of his sundial gnomon to match his new latitude. To make this easier, the latitudes for various cities were often given somewhere on the sundial. For instance, this medieval diptych names 18 European cities with the correct adjustment for each. It is also portable enough to be slipped into a saddle bag.”

Field Natural History Museum

The last stop for the day in Museum Campus was at my cherished Field Natural History Museum. I loved this place. It was there where I met Sue, who is the largest, most-complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex ever found! I marveled at her size and the fact that she’s 90 percent complete! 

I can’t even begin to list the copious exhibits that colored this architectural marvel throughout all of its three floors, but I can tell you it was something special and I learned so much that I felt sorry I couldn’t make it to absolutely everything. 

Some of the coolest facts I learned at Field include the following:

  • In its “Evolving Planet” exhibit, I learned that Chicago sits on an ancient reef. Around 420 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of North America, and a gigantic reef thrived where Chicago is now.
  • In its “Ronald and Christina Gidwitz Hall of Birds”, I learned that human vanity almost erased egrets. In the late 1800’s, bird plumes were in great demand for hats and dresses. To get egret plumes, hunters invaded nesting colonies, killing up to 3 million birds a year. Efforts by early conservation groups halted the trade by the 1930’s.
  • In the “Tsavo Lions” exhibit, I learned of the story of two man-eating lions who became famous for hunting and attacking railroad workers in Kenya in 1898. When the lions were eventually shot and killed, they were autopsied and found to have consumed about 35 humans, which was a steep decline from the alleged 135 people, claimed by witnesses. The Tsavo lions are considered a natural phenomenon and are studied to this day for their very unusual behavior.
  • In the “Underground Adventure” exhibit, I was shrunk to the size of a bug, in other words, to 1/100th of my actual size, smaller than a penny, and explored the interactive world of bugs underground. An incredibly cool feature of this exhibit was the snapping earwig that was guarding its babies.
  • Not to mention, much of the taxidermy presented are collections that have been circulating throughout the Field Museum since the historic Chicago Wold’s Fair of 1893. 

Read more about my first and second days in Chicago: A Day in Downtown Chicago & Friday Night in Chicago

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