Growing up 100 miles south of Chicago, we often visited its famous museums. For my 8th grade field trip, I remember group-trekking through the Museum of Science & Industry. The exhibits were interesting, if not gripping.
But boy, things have changed! A recent visit to Science & Industry’s rare captured German U-boat from World War II demonstrated that. The museum has displayed the U-505 since 1954. But in the last decade, it was moved indoors, into a 35,000-square-foot exhibit that’s downright suspenseful.
The stakes were set with explanations that U-boats had only been sunk, never captured, before the U.S. military’s Task Group 22.3 decided to try it. Rare archive video footage flashed on a big screen, putting us there in the Atlantic in 1944.
A capture would require the Americans to board the bombed U-boat after most of its crew had abandoned ship, we learned. But other Germans could be waiting for them inside—as could explosive traps. And the damaged sub could sink at any moment.
Just when I was wondering, “What happened in there?”—boom! There were six or eight phones we could pick up to hear recorded oral histories from each man who boarded. What’s better than hearing a story directly? The rest of the exhibit offered lots more on the capture (in which, miraculously, no American lives were lost)—but that’s when it grabbed me.
Meanwhile, I have to admit I’d never heard of the Chicago Historical Society or its museum, now called the Chicago History Museum, until two weeks ago. That’s when I discovered it’s got to be the best city museum anywhere.
For every member of the family, there was an appealing exhibit: Lincoln for dads. How Michigan Avenue became the Mag Mile for moms. “The 1968 Exhibit” for rebellious young adults (and nostalgic parents).
My husband and I were drawn to Vivian Maier’s Chicago, showing the images of the “nanny photographer.” She tended to suburban kids by day; only after she died in 2009 was her stunning catalog of street photos found.
I appreciated the way this world-class city museum presented Maier’s work. Blown-up images hung in the room’s center. Strips of smaller photos were grouped on the perimeter for people like me who wanted to dig in more. And the gallery wasn’t silent—jazzy piano tinkled over cars and horns and other street sounds.
Museums are all seeking to hit more of the senses, and they’ve been especially good at adding sound. But props to the Chicago History Museum for hitting scent, too! The centerpiece “Chicago Crossroads” exhibit included a lid you could lift to smell wild leeks.
Did you know the leeks are what Chicago was named for (although I’ve also seen it translated as “wild ramps” or “stinky onions”)? My cousin, who grew up there, hadn’t—proving that these updated museums offer lots for even natives to learn.