Windows into the Wild: Natural History Exhibition and Museum Education in Chicago, 1890-1940
thesisposted on 27.10.2017, 00:00 by Nicholas James McCormick
This dissertation tells the story of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and the Field Museum during critical formative years in the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression. This project argues that since their inception, Chicago’s natural history museums were democratic and accessible institutions because the museum leaders took the mission of public education about nature and science seriously. The museums encouraged people of all walks of life to visit. During the Progressive Era, an emerging group of professional museum workers developed the New Museum Idea that departed from earlier traditions of museum display and created sophisticated, visually appealing exhibits. This new focus on visual display charged museum men and women to increase scientific literacy and foster a respect for nature in a time when the field of ecology and concerns about a vanishing wilderness both emerged. To teach the public about nature museums developed sophisticated forms of visual display that transformed museums from “dead zoos” to dynamic places. Chicago was a center for information about nature and science and the museums engaged with audiences in the hinterland of Illinois and beyond. Chicago’s museums also played a role in a marketplace for specimens and acquired materials from correspondents as well as on expedition and through specialized vendors. Exhibits developed under after the New Museum Idea had to be of the finest quality aesthetically and scientifically. In addition to exhibits, the museums developed educational programming that adapted to new technologies and amusements such as movies and radio. Museum collections reached beyond the institution’s walls and into park field houses and schools. The Field Museum pioneered a unique school loan program that brought nature study to classrooms and adult education venues throughout the city. By the start of World War II, Chicago’s museums were at the forefront of public education and local conservation activities.