Flannery Correspondence

May 28, 2011

Trip to Chicago, Part 5 and last

When I tell Christa how much I want to visit the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI), she rolls her eyes.  She expects a series of murals, charts and tables describing the statistics and physics behind locomotive efficiency or how a drill press works or why gas mileage is so hard to improve.  After comparing all the other things we could see (zoo, aquarium, other museums, tours), she consents to the MSI because it is pretty affordable.

We have a compulsive way of visiting every single last exhibit when we go to museums together.  (When we have the kids with us, one or two exhibits is enough.)  We are proud to say there are at least one or two corners on the top floor balcony where we do not go.  Everything else we drink in with unexpected fascination.

There’s a big, silver train in the entrance called the Pioneer Zephyr.  You can learn all about it for free before you buy your ticket to the museum.  We don’t wait for the guided tour that reenacts a record-breaking trip from Denver to Chicago (there may be some extra fee).  The train and its exhibit feels like it comes straight out of The Rocketeer‘s Art Deco prop cabinet.  The museum store is also admission-free but all the stuff costs money.  We briefly consider lounging here, reading all about the museum and then leaving with minds full and hands empty for an expense-free day.  Aw, why not splurge?  We fork over $30 to a kid called Number 8.  Tickets in hand, we ascend by escalator into the greatest museum we have ever encountered.

I’m very scientific about maps.  The best way to see everything is to follow maze rules:  Always go in one direction (for example, always turn left, bearing right only when forced by dead-end).  So we walk through the space suits, Circus Circus [1, 2, 3], Pioneer Days [1, 2, 3], and Eye Spy.

The map shows a short hallway to the left with a small room labeled “U-505 Submarine”.  The map is not to scale.  The short hall becomes a long, winding path, descending down a few flights into an enormous room filled with an actual submarine captured in World War II.  Restored to spotless condition, you can tour it, learn all about it, all about submarines, control a submarine simulator, see how a torpedo works by looking at one cut in half, learn how the German Enigma machine encrypted messages, test your claustrophobia in a submarine bunk room and galley (separate from the submarine itself).  You could spend days in this one exhibit.

Back in the maze, we head toward the Smart Green Home exhibit:  Alas, an extra charge!  The Henry Crown Space Center is a nice consolation prize.

At this part of the story we regret not having little kids around.  Without them we are forbidden entrance to the Idea Factory.  Kids are going bananas in there with hands-on learning fun like Willy Wonka meets Mr. Wizard.

We move on to Farm Tech.  Who knew agriculture could be almost as cool as science?  (Did you know that pigs are no longer fed slop but rather a finely tuned diet of top nutrition in a sanitary environment?  Workers pass through an airlock, shower and change clothes before gaining access to the room with the pigs.)

Hidden in the corner behind the Energy Lab is an exhibit about how household plumbing works.  We spend way too much time watching the toilet half-sections flush and refill, drain and vent.

A display of firefighting history leads us to Christa’s delight:  Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle.  A doll house worth millions built by an early silent film actress, some of its microscopic artifacts are kept in a vault because they are too valuable to display to common folk.

We pass the science theater without watching the show (“Poop Happens” is playing; we know plenty about poop).  Who has time to sit when there’s two more floors of museum to cover?

We watch the Earth turn thanks to Foucault’s Pendulum (pronounced “foo-koh” for some reason).

Past the Ships Through the Ages and Racing Cars, we smuggle up a stairwell to learn about Imaging (digital and otherwise) next to a presentation on a therapeutic baby harp seal robot.

A planetarium-scale 3D history of our planet tempts us on our way to Networld.  Christa finds a place to sit down while Brian reads the history of the internet.

Bearing left, we are flabbergasted by Fast Forward… Inventing the Future.  Shirts that can hug you, coffee tables that make music according to the position of the coasters, a teenage boy in Africa makes a windmill from scratch that provides electricity and running water to his village, vertical farms, lifespans increase and mankind defies death indefinitely thanks to robots and tomorrow’s medical science.  The whole place is about inventions and inventions-to-be.  The next room is Out of the Vault, a mixed collection of museum relics — past inventions!

Cuteness overcomes the creepiness at the Genetics exhibit, thanks to a baby chick hatchery.

The Great Train Story is a toy train set dominating the museums largest room, encircling a model representing cities, mountains and plains.  Surrounding the train set is a collection of transportation artifacts, including the first vehicle to break 100 miles per hour (a train, just like Back to the Future Part III).  The train set and its model setting are full of subtle jokes and amusing situations plus an impressive replica of Chicago’s architecturally-rich downtown.

Yesterday’s Main Street is a cobble-stone walk down a Chicago street in 1910.  A silent film theater plays an animation about a dinosaur.

We traverse Petroleum Planet as hydrocarbons.

We dive into business and industry with three successive exhibits:  ToyMaker 3000, Enterprise and a hands-on business office including executive board room, marketing department, financial department and other realistic business roles.  The last room was closed and little information exists about it but it looks like an amazing idea, kind of like Young AmeriTowne.

In the middle area between exhibits is a large rotunda.  Behind the rotunda rises an industrial icon:  A mine shaft, complete with elevator leading deep into a basement-turned-cave.  The tour costs no extra and immerses you in coal miner living.  Our tour guide was visibly passionate about mining and knowledgeable.  (She spends her free time visiting actual mines around the country.)  After the tour is over we stand around asking her questions and reading the display until she’s late for the next tour.

The only big exhibit left is Science Storms.  Learn about rock slides and avalanches, tornadoes and tsunamis, how light works and how waves travel and reinforce or cancel out.  We spend so much time learning about wind and lightning that the museum is about to close.  We race up to the balcony, the third and top floor.  There are more science storms up here.

We make it to “YOU! The Experience” when they start telling people to leave.  We try to act oblivious and accidentally see more of the exhibit while “looking” for the exit.  They point us straight to the nearest stairwell.  That leaves a few corners unexplored:  The Wright Flyer, Flight Simulators, 727 Take Flight, Reusable City, Chemistry and the Education Labs.  There are five live science experiences, one impatiently-avoided science theater show, one Earth Revealed show, and five laboratory experiences (including liquid nitrogen).  Ah, well.  We’re exhausted and our minds are throbbing.  Time enough to digest.

In contrast to the art museum we visited earlier, the MSI is more tangible:  Physical objects, interactive displays and touch-friendly exhibits (instead of untouchable paintings and statues with velvet rope keeping you distant).  Form your own tornado: either at three small, individual fog machines with a single controllable fan — or at a two-story walk-in tornado controlled by 20 huge fans controlled by four separate stations.  Dress in 19th century clothes for a photo opportunity in a recreated city scene circa 1899.  Walk in an enormous hamster wheel and watch your biorhythms respond.  Stand on either side of a parabolic room to hear inaudible whispers from the other side.  Body Worlds is showing in two separate rooms but costs extra.  You can see why someone would want to live here for a month.

After being evicted (Christa stood in the gift shop for about 45 minutes after they were supposed to be closed), we walk slowly around the beautiful building containing the museum.  Hop a bus to rest our ankles.  One final stroll down the Chicago Riverwalk to bathe in architecture and the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Plaza.  We call the kids from a Chipotle.  On our way home we take a detour past our usual crosswalk where two thugs are pushing each other and yelling.  Our last night is restful and air-conditioned.  We enjoy the walk to the train in the morning.  Chicago weather has been divine — perfect for walking everywhere with a heavy backpack.  A plane takes us home the next day to Denver, Colorado, where the rain has been drowning everything for days.  A few days later we finally have some photos up.


How did we afford a trip to Chicago at this time in our lives?

  • Free plane tickets:  Last summer we traveled for a wedding; the airline bumped one of our flights so they gave us vouchers.  We don’t even check any luggage.  If it doesn’t fit in two small backpacks, we don’t need it.
  • Cheap lodging:  There are cheap hotels near Chicago.  These run about $150 per night.  Cheaper hotels are hard to find but you may get them around $100.  Cheapest is where we stayed, about $60.  We got what we paid for.
  • Had we paid the higher price (almost three times more), we would have spent as much on our lodging as we ended up spending total.  All expenses totaled just shy of $800 and we had generous gifts before we left that covered $250 of that.  Christa gets the credit for pinching every penny.

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