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Has the Museum of Science and Industry gone to the dogs?
August 5, 2010 — part 1 of 2 parts

Dear Cecil:

First you move the Museum of Contemporary Art and now there are no longer giant weeble people playing "You Bet Your Crop" at the Museum of Science and Industry? Is this true? I've been trying to explain this crazy game show to people (I believe the secret word is "irrigation"), and I cannot find any evidence of it online. What happened to it?

— Karen Lingel, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil replies:

The initial reaction to your question on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board, Karen, was: giant weeble people? You clarified as follows:

They were giant (bigger than lifesize) peg people with round wooden heads with goofy smiles painted on them, and one of them had a farmer's hat on him. They kinda turned side-to-side while they were answering the "You Bet Your Crop" agriculture questions. It was totally lame! I couldn't have hallucinated it. Twice.

Showing a degree of enterprise that I hope will be an example to the rest of the Teeming Millions, you then inquired with Museum of Science and Industry staff, which confirmed that yes, there had been such a display inside a geodesic dome as part of the International Harvester exhibit, but it was long gone. This set off an extended round of reminiscence among Straight Dope Chicago habituιs about memorable MSI attractions and what had become of them, which I read with mild interest until someone dropped this bombshell: the museum's legendary Coal Mine exhibit no longer featured a noisy train ride. This to me was like hearing the Wrigley bleacher bums had quit throwing back opposition home runs. Horrified, I thought: what the hell are they doing down there? I resolved immediately to organize an inspection tour. If the museum's sacred essence has been messed with, I said to myself, someone's going to pay.

In short order I recruited an assistant, Rogers Park resident TwoManyCats, who like me was a veteran of numerous childhood trips to MSI and likewise was appalled at the prospect of a mucked-up Coal Mine. We agreed to tour as much of the MSI as we could cram into one day, starting with the Coal Mine and moving on to a sampling of new and classic exhibits. I figured I'd even try to swing past the Fairy Castle, which, no doubt due to the influence of the Y chromosome, I'd always managed to skip as a kid.

Don't misunderstand. We didn't expect the MSI to remain frozen in the past. Science, we knew, marches on. However, some things were not to be trifled with. I also wanted to see how the museum was doing at basic housekeeping, which in the past had been erratic. As a boy, for example, I'd been fascinated by the display of exotic gears and linkages in one of the stairwells, which spun or slid eccentrically when you pressed a button. During a visit in the 1980s I'd been dismayed to find many were broken. I wondered if they were even still there.

Beyond all else, though, we wanted to find out if the current exhibit lineup reflected the noble MSI tradition: communicating useful bits of knowledge while still satisfying one's inner child. Conveying the magic of science and technology without dumbing them down took a rare talent, and MSI's success in doing so had made it one of the foremost science museums in the world. We wanted to see if the place still had the knack.

Cats and I met in the MSI's subterranean entry hall,  in itself a radical change from the original main entrance, when you walked up the museum's broad front steps and past giant Greek columns. However, I'd long since gotten used to it. Having been given a quick orientation by MSI staffer Marilyn Stein — the museum remains an easy place to get lost in — we got in line for the Coal Mine, the first real test.

I'd visited the Coal Mine exactly once before, as a Cub Scout. I remembered the wait as having been interminable. You climbed a long series of stairs to the top of a tower, then descended to the replica mine in a replica mine elevator. Even as a ten-year-old I'd been alert enough to recognize that this entailed some stagecraft, and you weren't really being transported 600 feet beneath the earth's surface, but rather to the museum's basement. The experience had been memorable just the same.

The wait this time was much briefer, as we'd hoped would be the case at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning. The walk up and ride down were much as I remembered. But things seemed different once we reached the mine. My hazy recollection from the Cub Scouts was that we had immediately piled into the mine train. Not this time.  Instead our group gathered around the tour guide for a demonstration of mine equipment, including a carbide miner's lamp. I suddenly recalled that the high point of this demonstration had been a startlingly loud bang, which was meant to represent, or perhaps actually was, a methane gas explosion, which the carbide lamp was supposed to prevent. I braced myself.

The demonstration concluded. No bang.

I was alarmed. No explosion, and no lurching, clattering ride through a thrillingly dark tunnel, which the Cub Scout in me regarded as the core Coal Mine experience. My worst fears appeared to be realized. Where's the fun?

But wait. The tour guide directed us to the rear of the room. There was the train — essentially two steel cages on wheels. We clambered aboard, the doors were slammed, and we set off on an excursion involving a satisfying amount of lurching, clattering, and darkness, which closely replicated, and quite possibly was identical to, the train ride I'd experienced these many years before. Everything in the Coal Mine from that point forward, in fact — the ear-splitting conveyor belt, the massive drilling machines — was much as I remembered, and I'm now prepared to concede that perhaps my memory was faulty and the carbide lamp demonstration had originally occurred at the beginning of the tour, just as it had now. Furthermore, museum staff later informed me that the bang had been dropped from the show temporarily due to the difficulty of obtaining parts for the carbide lamp, but that this deficiency was being attended to, and that in the fullness of time the bang would be back. The Coal Mine, in short, had hardly changed at all.

I was relieved, naturally. But our tour of inspection had just begun.

Meandering through the museum's lower level after exiting the Coal Mine, Cats and I came upon the Farm Tech exhibit. As a kid I'd always steered clear of the agriculture hall, finding it dull. However, I felt duty-bound to visit it now.

The farm exhibit has been reconstructed multiple times over the years. The shiny John Deere tractor and combine currently at the heart of it weren't the ones I'd glimpsed decades earlier — International Harvester had supplied those. But my overall impression was that things remained much the same. There was the sow and her suckling piglets. The dairy plant. The corn processing video with a barely audible sound track — something about modified corn starch. A few things had been added: for example, a display entitled "Poop Power" featuring a life-size model of a cow astride a life-sized — indeed heroically-sized — pile of manure, with an explanation of how this might be converted to energy by anaerobic bacteria, continuing the MSI tradition of charming bluntness. But on the whole the exhibit struck me as very sixties — in this case, not a good thing.

You may say that reflects the prejudices of a city kid. Perhaps it does. But it seemed to me there were fascinating agricultural stories of which Farm Tech gave no hint, the most obvious being the impact of climate change on farming in a world already having difficulty feeding itself. I could think of plenty of others: genetically modified crops. Diminishing water supplies for irrigation throughout the American west. The effect of looming shortages of petroleum and phosphate on industrialized agriculture. Controversial subjects to be sure, possibly skewing to the apocalyptic side. But in my opinion the uncertain future of farming warranted some drama. 

When I spoke later with Kurt Haunfelner, MSI's vice president of exhibits and collections, he offered a modest defense: (a) some years earlier Farm Tech had gotten an update, though not a major revamp, due to limited time and resources; (b) kids loved climbing on the tractor and combine, and (c) climate change, already mentioned in a couple other exhibits, would be the subject of a new MSI exhibit then being planned. One hopes something better ultimately emerges. We live in the middle of one of the world's great agricultural regions, which lies in the crosshairs. Nothing wrong with kids climbing on tractors. But there are other things they need to know.

Next it was up to the main floor to check out some other classic MSI exhibits. Cats and I looked in on the Chick Hatchery, now housed in the Genetics gallery. Other than new signage, it looked the same — baby chicks emerging before your eyes is a spectacle upon which it would be difficult to improve.

Then the giant model railroad, officially known as the Great Train Story. It had been completely rebuilt, I thought to decided advantage. Gone were the generic townscapes, replaced by cities that were recognizably Chicago on one side of the sprawling miniature continent and Seattle on the other. The Loop, I observed with interest, had had a few blocks excised from its middle and some of the better-known buildings rearranged, presumably in the service of superior artistic effect — the Chicago planning department would doubtless find the result instructive. But the best part, I thought, was the adjacent city neighborhood, its two-flats and bungalows as emblematic of Chicago as the Hancock building — the work of a master modeler, even if none noticed his handiwork but the occasional dweeb like me.

Reworked in some cases though they were, all we'd seen up till this point were traditional MSI exhibits. It was time to check out something completely new.  I looked at the museum map and spotted Net World, presumably signifying the Internet, not fishing. Here, I thought, will be a fair test.

Net World was housed in what I remembered as having been, in a previous geological epoch, the AT&T gallery, full of the latest in telephones. Everyone remembers the picture phones, but my favorite part of the exhibit had been Nim, the child's pencil-and-paper game reimagined with buttons and lights. You played against a computer, by modern standards a ridiculously primitive device with transistors the size of Jujubes. This was long gone, as were the phones. (Update: Cecil's memory, burdened with the totality of human knowledge, may be deceiving him — further consultation suggests the AT&T game was tic-tac-toe, while Nim was in the General Motors gallery.) But the Internet, now … surely this was a subject on which a clever exhibit designer could go to town.

At the entrance of the gallery a sign told you that you might pay a dollar to purchase an avatar, an electronic amulet suspended from a necklace. You presented the avatar at a photo booth, which took your picture. Then when you tapped your avatar to pads at subsequent stops in the exhibit, your face would magically appear atop a stick figure on the display.

It might have been a cute idea had it worked, but it didn't. The first photo booth was out of order; the other one, at the far end of the hall, took pictures of our stomachs, the concept evidently, and the camera certainly, having been aimed at five-year-olds. Presenting our avatars at various locations, most of the time we couldn't even get our stomachs to show up, or only after a long interval. The avatars were distressingly fragile, with the wires pulling loose or the batteries falling out. God knows what five-year-olds made of them. 

Putting the avatars aside, we attempted to interact with Net World incognito. This didn't produce noticeably greater success. The displays consisted mostly of touch screens; these reacted sluggishly or not at all. Even lightning speed probably wouldn't have helped; the basic design of the interactive displays was so laborious as to crush all interest. One pair of screens attempted to demonstrate packet switching, admittedly a key Internet concept but not all that tough to explain. Net World wanted you to play a tedious game in which you assembled a message on one screen, then saw it fly apart (I think; the process played out with such stuttering slowness I couldn't be sure what was happening) and eventually reassemble on the other screen. This took three or four minutes. Time required to explain packet switching to someone with any notion whatsoever: ten seconds.

Net World, in sum, was a mess. Kurt Haunfelner didn't argue, saying the museum planned to rethink the exhibit soon.  He agreed with an observation by Cats: science museums like MSI, believing personal computers to be the educational platform of the future, had invested heavily in PC-based equipment only to find that within a few years it was hopelessly obsolete — some exhibits still ran on Windows 3.  Clearly it was futile to compete with home gaming and entertainment systems; the museum's task in the future would be to build kinetic, three-dimensional exhibits using technology visitors couldn't easily replicate.

We saw an example of such an exhibit immediately upon leaving Net World. Called Earth Revealed, it consisted of a sphere six feet in diameter suspended from the ceiling that a human presenter through some miracle of hand-operated technology could transform into a planet — the earth most obviously, but also Mars, the moon, Jupiter and probably any other significant object in the solar system (I don't know the full inventory; we came in a little late). 

The effect was mesmerizing, better than any photograph — sitting in the darkened room, you felt you were viewing a celestial body floating in space. As we watched the earth by night, Cats pointed out North Korea, a conspicuously black void among the bright lights of Asia. Here was a country that needn't be concerned about its carbon footprint, a striking illustration (a little exaggerated, I acknowledge) of the choices that awaited us. Vivid lessons like that were what the best museums offered, and after a dud like Net World it was a relief to see that MSI was still capable of it. Still, Earth Revealed was a small exhibit, conceptually simple. Whether the museum could pull off something comparable on a larger scale we had yet to find out.

(To be continued next week — and yes, we'll discuss the fate of the walk-through heart, shown at the top of this column.) 

— Cecil Adams
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science and Industry

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