Over the Fourth of July weekend, I journeyed to Chicago for the first time and visited my friend Kat and saw some of the city’s many fabulous sites. One that I was most excited to see was the Field Museum, the city’s impressive natural history center. The day was brutally hot, but after making it indoors we were greeted with a vast hall populated with taxidermy fighting African elephants, and a rather famous dinosaur.
That dinosaur is of course Sue, the largest and best preserved T-Rex ever discovered. She was found in western South Dakota in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson, for whom the dinosaur was named. After the discovery, there was some struggle over ownership of the bones that were found on Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal lands (perhaps Sue’s name could also be a tribute to the Sioux?), until they were finally purchased by the Field Museum for over 8 million dollars. Since 2000, Sue has presided over the museum, although her actual skull is located in a balcony above the rest of the skeleton.
There are other dinosaurs in the museum, along with a multitude of skeleton and taxidermy animals. It was overwhelming. And of course with all these natural history wonders comes the shrill screaming of hundreds of children, but I do find it kind of a relief that “kids today” still find old bones exciting with all their technological toys. Although people have been marveling over dinosaur bones for centuries, first thinking they were the remains of giants and now still stunned that such large creatures could have roamed our earth. I don’t think that will ever become less amazing and terrifying at the same time.
While the museum opened in 1893, it didn’t move to its current position on the lake until 1921, where it continues to operate alongside the Shedd Aquarium (which I also visited and wil post on soon) and the Adler Planetarium. The museum was named after the shopping entrepreneur Marshall Field, who gave the museum an early endowment of a million dollars after getting past his earlier statement of “I don’t know anything about a museum and I don’t care to know anything about a museum. I’m not going to give you a million dollars.”
I didn’t know much about the Field Museum’s collection other than Sue, and that there were a couple of notorious man-eating lions. I was surprised to encounter another soon after we entered the museum through the basement. The Man-Eater of Mfuwe stands, teeth bared, next to a bag of clothes with infamous significance. At over 10 feet long, it was the largest man-eating lion on record (taxidermy tends to shrink animals a bit), and terrorized the Laungwa River Valley in Zambia for two months in 1991. After it killed its sixth victim (although there could have been more), the lion paraded through the town, roaring and dragging a bag of the poor victim’s clothes with it. The lion was eventually killed by Wayne Hosek, a hunter from California, who waited for 20 days in a hunting blind before shooting the man-eater.
Upstairs in the Africa wing are the Tsavo Man-Eaters. Also maneless male lions, they killed numerous construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway from March to December in 1898, stalking the workers’ campsite at night and dragging victims out of their tents. Although it’s unclear exactly how many people they killed, the railroad project leader estimated it was 135. The two were eventually shot by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who then kept the lions as rugs for 25 years before they were sold to the Field Museum in 1924. They were reformed into lion figures and are now displayed along with their skulls.
The collection at the Field Museum is astounding, both in its beautiful dioramas and as the unfortunate fact that a lot of animals were killed just so they could be mounted behind glass. I have mixed feelings about taxidermy. On the one hand, I find it fascinating, the way that humans try to claim and recreate wild animals in a safe, sterile space. I like the aesthetic of it, its bizarre dead-alive feel. But as a vegetarian and animal lover I’m also disturbed by the frequent disregard for life that went into creating these specimens. I don’t wear leather because I find it creepy to wear something else’s skin, just as the stretching of a dead animal’s skin over a recreation of their skeleton is unquestionably macabre. Anyway, I do love to go to natural history museums and see these things, but at the same time acknowledge that I should be questioning this action. With that said, here are some more pictures of dioramas at the Field Museum, where you can decide for yourself if this is a work of beauty, honoring the animal and natural world, or just another human trophy collection. Or you can just let me know if I’m over thinking things as usual.
Blue Bird of Paradise, aka bird of my nightmares.
Wait no, THESE are the birds of my nightmares.
Oh, I give up, all you birds are creepy. Stop doing that with your legs, saddle billed stork!
I’ll end with lovely Su Lin, the first panda to live in captivity outside of China. Captured in 1936, she was brought to the United States by Ruth Harkness. After living at the zoo in Chicago and being joined by another panda, she sadly died of pneumonia two years later. Chicago hasn’t had any pandas since, but Su Lin continues to look both cute and melancholic at the Field Museum, a reminder of both human’s love and mistreatment of animals.