A Palace of Ideas: Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry
By Jennifer Young
Since opening during Chicago’s 1933 “A Century of Progress” World’s Fair, the Museum of Science and Industry has attracted more than 190 million guests.
Inspired by the Deutsches Museum of Munich, which focused on scientific and industrial processes, the founders of the Museum of Science and Industry believed that Chicago was an ideal location for a similar institution focused on celebrating science and technology.
Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, led the effort to establish the museum. He convinced the Commercial Club of Chicago (which counted George Pullman, Cyrus McCormick, and Marshall Field among its members) to support his effort. Rosenwald provided an initial gift of $3 million. With additional funds from the city, work began on the museum in 1926.
The first challenge for founders was to find a suitable location. They chose the former Palace of Fine Arts Building located in the South Side neighborhood of Jackson Park. As the only remaining structure built for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the Beaux Arts-style building required extensive renovation. After the 1893 exposition, it housed the Field Museum until 1920 when it relocated downtown, but had remained vacant until Rosenwald and his group acquired it.
When it opened its doors to the public in 1933, only 10% of its space was ready for exhibiting. Throughout the next decade, however, it weathered financial difficulties to create more display space for its early exhibits, which included a replica of a coal mind (still a popular attraction today); one of the world’s largest model railroads; and Colleen Moore’s enchanting Fairy Castle. In 1942, the museum initiated its Christmas Around the World exhibit, an annually-recurring attraction, to salute Allied troops. The exhibit began with a single Christmas tree: today, more than 50 trees—decorated to reflect global cultures and traditions—are featured along with live holiday performances.
During the 1940s, the museum began to suffer serious financial difficulties. Its board of directors invited Major Lenox R. Lohr, the one-time general manager of the “A Century of Progress” Exhibition and head of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), to take on the role of museum president. Lohr was instrumental in reorganizing the museum’s funding structure as well as the implementation and maintenance of its exhibits. Largely through his efforts, the museum expanded to become the world-class science and technology museum it is today.
Today’s Museum of Science and Industry encompasses more than 350,000 square feet, features more than 35,000 artifacts, and showcases more than 2,000 exhibits at any given time. Aside from the coal mine, other popular museum exhibits include:
~U-505, a WWII German U-boat
~Baby Chick Hatchery
~Henry Crown Space Center
~Yesterday’s Main Street
In recent years, the museum’s Omnimax Theatre has also become a leading attraction, showing films related to the museum’s core fields: technology, transportation, agriculture, energy, and communications.
The Museum of Science and Industry began charging admission in 1991 to support its ongoing development. It has embraced a mission to provide educational programming and outreach and create interactive and hands-on learning experiences for museum visitors. A few museum exhibits such as the On-Board Tour of U-505, the Coal Mine, and the new Wired to Wear exhibit require an additional fee. If you’re planning to visit the museum, be sure to check its website for special discount and free-entry days.