Exhibits That Show and Tell. INNOVATIVE APPROACH. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History Emphasizes Links between the Objects on View

By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 1989 | Go to article overview

Exhibits That Show and Tell. INNOVATIVE APPROACH. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History Emphasizes Links between the Objects on View


Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


WALK into the Egyptian tomb exhibit, past 23 authentic mummies, beyond a stretch of the Nile, and there, displayed, is a dollar bill.

A dollar bill? In an Egyptian exhibit?

Sure, says Michael Spock, pointing to the pyramid pictured on the back of the bill. "I have always looked at that and wondered what the heck it was doing there. While we are talking about pyramids, we might as well get that piece of the puzzle across."

The picture, it turns out, is a Masonic symbol. But it is also a graphic illustration of the new direction at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Instead of displaying and explaining objects, the museum is aiming to make links.

"The museum experience is really almost a dialogue between people and objects," says Mr. Spock, vice president of public programs at the museum. "And what you try to do is make it possible for those objects to speak to people, to tell their story."

And to get them excited.

"Inside Ancient Egypt" is the Field Museum's first major exhibit to take this new approach. And the change is striking.

Instead of displaying mummies and other artifacts, the exhibit tries to re-create ancient Egypt. Visitors start by walking through an entrance to a reconstructed stone mastaba tomb, where nearly 5,000 years ago Unis-ankh, the son of a pharaoh, was buried. Two of the tomb's chambers are authentic, excavated and brought from Egypt in 1908. Then, it's out to the tomb courtyard (complete with bright lighting to reproduce the desert sun), then up the stairs overlooking the courtyard and down the burial shaft, 35 feet by circular stairs, into the burial chamber.

It is clear that the exhibit's designers have made a special effort to avoid being stodgy. At the bottom of the shaft, a sign proclaims: "Tomb Robbers Got Here First." Like the original site in Egypt, the chamber is almost empty except for a few items such as an empty sarcophagus (the outer stone container in which the mummy and coffin were originally placed). The mummy itself was valuable, because many precious jewels were placed in the wrappings.

Visitors then exit through a crude-looking grave-robbers' tunnel, where they can see the kind of treasures the robbers were after. On the wall is a translation of a grave robber's confession extracted under torture about 1125 BC.

"One of the great things about the Egyptians is that they were practical," says Spock, entering the next phase of the exhibit. "What they began to understand is that you couldn't bury all of the things with the mummies that they might need in the afterlife. So they began to make models."

There are miniature models of a granary, a butcher shop, even attendants who, when needed in the afterlife, were thought to spring to life magically. One display shows the 70-day mummification process. Once reserved only for pharaohs, the process became more widespread, reaching into the middle class. Women, children, and even pets were eventually mummified along with men. The exhibit displays examples of each.

Next is a re-created stretch of the Nile, complete with live minnows, dragonflies, waterlilies, papyrus, and a shaduf. The shaduf, a counterbalanced device that allowed workers to lift water from the Nile into irrigation canals, is one of the exhibit's most popular displays. Everyone, it seems, has to take a turn at pulling the bucket into the water, then lifting it into the canal. …

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