Through Museums and What I Found There

Museums are great places to hang out. They contain plenty of information that one would probably never look up on one’s own, they have open spaces to relax in after hours of walking, they have over-priced cafeteria food for when you’re hungry, and a few of them even have interactive displays or live shows. Museums have historically had a bad rap for being boring places (especially those modern art and history museums) but if an entire building exists dedicated to one subject, you’ll most likely leave that building with at least some sort of appreciation for the work displayed. And if you are still afraid of being bored all by your lonesome self, invite some friends along, anything boring turns to instant fun when your friends are around.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday (the first Tuesday and Wednesday of the new year) I traveled down to Chicago, Illinois with my family and my girlfriend. We visited the Art Institute of Chicago one Tuesday and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry (or MSI for short) on Wednesday.  Both Museums were great experiences in their own unique way, and each represented a sort of dichotomy found within different museums. The Art Institute was geared towards the older/mature folks and consisted of lots of walking, reading and appreciating (or questioning) with very little interactive elements while the MSI was filled with little kids led by chaperons and displays that either included buttons to pushed, videos to be watched or screens to be touched. One museum was meant for the appreciation of culture while the other was meant for the education of life and its many mysteries. I learned much from both.

Rodeo by Brice Marden

After a quick stop at Millennium Park (a great place to go if you’re ever in Chicago, although visits in the warmer months guarantee a full experience) for picture taking, we headed to the Art Institute across the street. For a building that includes architectural works, I found the layout of the museum to be quite confusing. Certain parts of the basement level could only be accessed by certain stairs/elevators on the first floor and there was an extreme lack of signage from what I could tell. Maybe I was missing something, but the museum was quite the maze which added an element of exploration to the experience. The Art Institute features a variety of pieces of artwork, from statues and artifacts from ancient civilizations to modern pieces of sculpture, photography and canvas.  Now, Contemporary Art, there’s a strange concept right there. I’m sure you’ve heard of contemporary artwork – the paintings that feature one single blue dot in the middle of a white canvas or black squares on the upper left corner, or even paintings that just appear like the artist tripped over his paint buckets or was half-awake when writing his grocery list. You may think those are just stereotypes of the modern art genre, but I assure you those kinds of paintings are very real. Not all contemporary artwork is like that, but their are quite a bit. Even as a minimalist, I often wonder how the paintings I saw could ever be considered “art” that could be compared with those great renaissance painters or sculptors. It just seems like the artist just slapped some paint on the canvas or brushed a few strokes and called the piece done (or “Untitled”) and let the art critiques examine the heck out of the piece. I am appreciative of the function of art in culture and history, but sometimes, I just wonder. Although there were three pieces of artwork that did catch my eye.  Two were interactive: a pile of individually brightly-wrapped candies (which we were allowed to take) and a stack of semi-high-quality paper featuring a silver square and white rectangle. These were both considered art and yet we were allowed to change the appearance and use its elements. Many people took the silver/white paper and started folding planes, fans and origami creations among other things. I guess what I took out of the Art Institute was that Art isn’t necessarily the appearance of the pieces, but the story of the pieces as well, how the piece came to be, the journey of the piece from the Artist’s mind to the physical representation of the idea. Yeah, that sounds almost exactly like the random nonsense I read on the informational placards, but it makes sense to me. For example, there was one artist who took pictures of deep space with a high-powered telescope and framed each one of her photos….each one of her completely black photos. She took so many photos of completely black screens which seemed completely useless, both scientifically and aesthetically, but the fact that she had actually taken them, that she had photographed a piece of space some number of light years away warranted some kind of appreciation.

Oh yeah, and the last piece of artwork that I liked? It was this:

It’s part of a series of paintings called Today by On Kawara, a Japanese Painter. He made around two thousand of these paintings, each with a date on it. The date that he painted (by hand, no stencils). I think I read that the date that appears on the painting is either the day the painting was made or the future date in which he will destroy the painting, but I can’t seem to confirm that fact. I just like the painting because it’s just a date, with numbers, on a black canvas. And also probably cause it reminds me of Lost with the font, the colors and numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42…). I wonder if the date has any significance?

Marina City

Anyway, the main reason that we went to the Art Institute was to see the temporary exhibit featuring Bertrand Goldberg, creator of Marina City in Chicago. Goldberg was a pretty famous architect, responsible for many cutting-edge hospital and city-planning designs among other works. I really like looking at architectural sketches and plans and such, I have a fascination with plans and maps of cities, systems and even natural geographies. I don’t know if I could ever produce sketches like that, but I will forever remain in awe of those who can. Goldberg had some interesting ideas on urban planning, for instance his sky-scraper-like cities were subdivided into neighborhoods (consisting of a few floors) that each had their own schools (as well as shops, theatres and other recreational activities). It’s an interesting concept, but something about having everything  so close to your home that you would never have to leave the building seems a little claustrophobic. But many metropolises are considering Goldberg’s approach of skyscraper cities as populations continue to rise. One thing I did notice was that Goldberg really likes radial symmetry. Goldberg designed so many buildings (and some furniture) during his lifetime. One thing that separates architecture from other forms of art is that it needs to also be useful, and last a long time. Architecture is more than just art, it’s also servicing society directly, and therefore needs to incorporate other design principles.

Algae-covered Marina City

Sadly, Architecture appears to be a very tough field now since the fall of the economy and buildings no longer need to be built completely from scratch any more. These days, I think the focus should be more on renovations than completely new constructions.  A good example would be Marina City itself. Two Parisian Architects from Influx_Studio demonstrated how to renovate Marina City with algae in order to reduce the carbon impact of the buildings and surrounding environments.

Smart Home

The next day we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. Like I mentioned before, this museum is geared towards younger kids with the goal of making the next generation excited about science (and I guess Industry). That doesn’t mean that the museum only had exhibits for kids, the main reason we went there was to visit the Smart Home, a temporary exhibit that featured a green-tech house in the back of the museum filled with the latest eco-friendly building technologies. It was a cool exhibit with plenty to see, but unfortunately it was a guided tour that only allowed us 30  minutes inside the house, despite the fact that there was so much to see and read about. For those who don’t know much about sustainable living and building technologies, this was a great exhibit, and for those who already do, it was still a nice exhibit to see the technologies in action and how all the parts came together. While the exhibit didn’t delve into the actual economic costs for the seemingly to-good-to-be-true home, it did touch on sustainable living through re-purposing used materials and furniture which was a cool touch. The main bummer was just the lack of time we could spend in the house and explore on our own.

We also checked out the Future Tech exhibit which hadn’t changed much from the last time I was there (many of the exhibits there were under maintenance/repair) which talked about a few innovative new designs of the future, one of my favorite being the vertical farm. I’m a big proponent for the concept of vertical farming, and I guess one of my dream jobs would be the design and implementation of vertical farming, I just think it’s a really cool and practical concept, I just wonder why it hasn’t been put into commercial practice yet. We also visited the Genetics wing that talked about genes and cloning. The cloned rats were still there, as well as the chick hatchery. We actually got to witness the hatching of a baby chick from its egg, it was pretty exciting (if somewhat slower than how I imagined). First time I’ve ever seen something born with my own eyes.

Chick about to hatch!
Chick Hatched! (Photos courtesy of Aimée Wattiaux)

There was also a neat game in the museum, called Mindball (c). Basically, it’s a game of competitive relaxation (yes, an oxymoron). Opposing players place a headband around their forehead that monitors their alpha and theta waves which is a measurement of the person’s relaxations. A ball starts between the two players and moves towards the player who is least relaxed. The game ends when the ball reaches one persons end. It’s an interesting game as you watch the expressions on the players’ faces and also the graphs of the wave levels on the screen. The game can last anywhere from less than 5 seconds to 10 min. or longer depending on the relaxation levels of the players.

Alpha and Theta Graphs

One thing I think would be cool to incorporate in the MSI is the discussion of current global problems such as world hunger and water scarcity (there was a little talk about it in displays). Exhibits that help foster the engagement and interest of younger generations to tackle the world’s problems would be an excellent addition to the museum. Sometimes I wonder just how much information young kids are getting from the displays. Are they actually learning and reading the placards or are they just pushing buttons and admiring all the pretty lights? Those ”pretty lights” are what first attract the kids attention and interest, but you don’t want kids to leave thinking that the only things astronauts do are walk on moons and operate technology.

Anyway, that about wraps up my summary of my Chicago Trip. It was well worth it in my opinion, I learned a lot about technology, culture and life in general and had fun doing it. You’re always guaranteed to learn a little more about yourself and your opinions about life after these kinds of trips, and that’s always important. It’s nice to see little kids taking an interest in sciences and the world around them as well as older folks still going out and appreciating cultural works. While there are certain things I may prefer to do or take an interest in over other subjects, I try not to belittle other subjects that I’m not particularly fond of. The beauty of it all is that everyone has their own unique interests and passions which in turn creates a richer world in which each and all aspects of life can be appreciated, from the science of how tornadoes work to squares and circles of color that cover the canvases.

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