Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair Review - Field Museum Magic

I waited impatiently along with the 4th grade class of CPS Lief Ericson School as we listened to some important facts about the exhibition we came to see at The Field Museum, “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair”.  The people who spoke were from organizations that were sponsoring the exhibition and/or had roots reaching to the 1893 World’s Fair.  We were welcomed by Richard Lariviere, President and C.E.O., The Field Museum and then heard from: Cheryl Cooke, Manager of Corporate Giving, Allstate Insurance Company; Steve Solomon Vice President Corporate Relations, Exelon and President, Exelon Corporation, John Drengenberg, Director of Consumer Safety, UL and Meg Robinson, Director of Communications, The Field Museum.







It was interesting to note that the providers of the electricity that lit “The White City” became Com Ed which is owned by Exelon, and that UL began when the electricity lighting the fair started a number of fires.


One of the “fun facts” about the exhibit is that: Over 50,000 objects on display at the fair became part of the Anthropology collections of the Field Columbian Museum, later renamed The Field Museum. The founding collections of the Museum came mainly from three of the fair’s main buildings—the Anthropology Building, the Horticulture Building, and the Mines, Mineralogy, and Metallurgy Building—as well as from the cultural villages displayed in the fair grounds and Midway.”


Although The Columbian Exposition was planned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World, it didn’t quite make the date in 1892 (the actual anniversary) and, instead, the fair opened one year later.  Running from May 1 until October 31, 1893, it spawned a new national holiday – Columbus Day – as one result of the fair’s popularity. An adult ticket to the fair cost 50 cents, 25 cents for children under 12, and admission was free for children 6 and under.


The chance to see this exhibition was very exciting to me, as the fair has lighted my imagination over many years.  I remember visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, the only original building left from the fair, and walking through the halls in the lower level where giant photos from the fair lined the walls.  A few years ago I read Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” and participated in the Chicago Architectural Foundation Tour of the same name, and with all that I was ready to take in all that the “wonders” this new exhibition offered.

In a sense, the fair grew out of the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 when much of Chicago lay in ruins. With the Columbian Exposition opening just 22 years later, it signaled Chicago’s resurrection and stood as a monument of civic pride for its industrial-era business leaders. In addition, it built the reputation of its architectural supervisor, Daniel Burnham.



It boggles my mind trying to grasp the scope of the fair.  There were over 25 million visitors. The Columbian Exposition also introduced those who attended to people and cultures from the far corners of the world.  Within the walls of the exhibition halls were objects, art, technology, and displays from around the world. People saw things they had never seen before: taxidermy and animal skeletons, fossils, meteorites, artifacts from ancient cultures, raw materials from South America and Asia.



The treatment of non-European cultures was different from today, but many of the artifacts displayed in those exhibitions were outstanding and remain so today.  Another aside was that Ragtime music familiar in the States was shared with visitors from abroad but the musicians were only allowed to play outdoors.  The lights which turned the fair into “the white city” were very significant. What would it be like to see the entire fair brightly lit for the first time?


The history of the Field Museum is explained on its Website: “The Field Museum was incorporated in the State of Illinois on September 16, 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago with its purpose the "accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history." In 1905, the Museum's name was changed to Field Museum of Natural History to honor the Museum's first major benefactor, Marshall Field, and to better reflect its focus on the natural sciences. In 1921 the Museum moved from its original location in Jackson Park to its present site on Chicago Park District property near downtown where it is part of a lakefront Museum Campus that includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. These three institutions are regarded as among the finest of their kind in the world and together attract more visits annually than any comparable site in Chicago.”


As I entered the exhibition, I was greeted by wall sized archival photographs, alternating projections, ragtime music, huge artifacts, the fair’s financial ledger, tickets and more.


Moving through the exhibition highlights included: taxidermy by Carl Akeley whose animal dioramas are famous in museums around the country; an apothecary-like display with botanical samples still in their original containers that illustrate the sheer mass and variety of what was presented at the fair; a large Samoan drum, Peruvian mummies, and a Javanese gamelan which is displayed along with an interactive that allows visitors to hear it and experiment themselves and another interactive where visitors can explore the Peruvian mummies through CT scans.


My favorite experience was a movie I watched which was created using photographs, a “green screen” and staff of The Field Museum.  Watching this, I finally had the feeling of moving through the fair.  I loved it.


The fair only lasted for six months and adult admission was only 50 cents but this event turned the world on its ear and during that time Chicago was the crossroads of the world.  It ushered in an era of American optimism and economic growth and the fair presented to the world the ability of America—and in particular, Chicago—to participate in the global market.  This exhibition is one you will not want to miss.  But wait, there is more.


Paola Bucciol, Exhibition Project Manager, told me there are also 28 items that were originally part of the World’s Fair on permanent display through out the museum. Enhancing this exhibition is the Field Museum’s first-ever mobile tour application that will provide visitors with a more detailed look at objects on display and those hidden away.  The first tour features objects from the 1893 World’s Fair such as totem poles fro, Canada, a quintessential American bison and much more.  It will be continuously populated with new objects and the museum is very excited about offering this.


For the first time, The Chicago Architecture Foundation is partnering with The Field Museum to provide a unique World’s Fair Experience. Visitors can purchase tickets for tours led by the Chicago Architecture Foundation available Friday through Sunday, October 25 to Jan 5, 2014.  Tours will depart from and return to the museum between 11am and 1pm and they last 75 minutes.  Reservations are recommended and tickets can be purchased here.


Other related events include:


A photographic exhibition

July 27, 2013 – March 2, 2014

Harold Washington Library Center
Special Collections Exhibit Hall, Ninth Floor
400 S. State Street


Demonstrating how the Columbian Exhibition had impact on all involved and how cultures were brought together as never before is the exhibition at the Chicago History Museum’s Special Exhibit “Siam: The Queen and the White City” running now until March 2.  To see a review of the exhibition



The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive and is open 9am to 5pm every day of the year except Christmas Day


Tickets to Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair are included in both Discovery and All Access passes to the Museum. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Tickets can be purchased at Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 10 or more. Call our Group Sales office at 888.FIELD.85 for details.

Exclusive Hotel Package include:


Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago

Trump Website


Chicago's Essex Inn

Essex Inn Website


Inn of Chicago Magnificent Mile

Inn of Chicago Website



Photos: Courtesy of the Field Museum unless otherwise noted.

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