Exhibits That Show and Tell. INNOVATIVE APPROACH. Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History emphasizes links between the objects on view
CHICAGO — WALK into the Egyptian tomb exhibit, past 23 authentic mummies, beyond a stretch of the Nile, and there, displayed, is a dollar bill. A dollar bill? In an Egyptian exhibit?
Sure, says Michael Spock, pointing to the pyramid pictured on the back of the bill. ``I have always looked at that and wondered what the heck it was doing there. While we are talking about pyramids, we might as well get that piece of the puzzle across.''
The picture, it turns out, is a Masonic symbol. But it is also a graphic illustration of the new direction at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. Instead of displaying and explaining objects, the museum is aiming to make links.
``The museum experience is really almost a dialogue between people and objects,'' says Mr. Spock, vice president of public programs at the museum. ``And what you try to do is make it possible for those objects to speak to people, to tell their story.''
And to get them excited.
``Inside Ancient Egypt'' is the Field Museum's first major exhibit to take this new approach. And the change is striking.
Instead of displaying mummies and other artifacts, the exhibit tries to re-create ancient Egypt. Visitors start by walking through an entrance to a reconstructed stone mastaba tomb, where nearly 5,000 years ago Unis-ankh, the son of a pharaoh, was buried. Two of the tomb's chambers are authentic, excavated and brought from Egypt in 1908. Then, it's out to the tomb courtyard (complete with bright lighting to reproduce the desert sun), then up the stairs overlooking the courtyard and down the burial shaft, 35 feet by circular stairs, into the burial chamber.
It is clear that the exhibit's designers have made a special effort to avoid being stodgy. At the bottom of the shaft, a sign proclaims: ``Tomb Robbers Got Here First.'' Like the original site in Egypt, the chamber is almost empty except for a few items such as an empty sarcophagus (the outer stone container in which the mummy and coffin were originally placed). The mummy itself was valuable, because many precious jewels were placed in the wrappings.
Visitors then exit through a crude-looking grave-robbers' tunnel, where they can see the kind of treasures the robbers were after. On the wall is a translation of a grave robber's confession extracted under torture about 1125 BC.
``One of the great things about the Egyptians is that they were practical,'' says Spock, entering the next phase of the exhibit. ``What they began to understand is that you couldn't bury all of the things with the mummies that they might need in the afterlife. So they began to make models.''
There are miniature models of a granary, a butcher shop, even attendants who, when needed in the afterlife, were thought to spring to life magically. One display shows the 70-day mummification process. Once reserved only for pharaohs, the process became more widespread, reaching into the middle class. Women, children, and even pets were eventually mummified along with men. The exhibit displays examples of each.
Next is a re-created stretch of the Nile, complete with live minnows, dragonflies, waterlilies, papyrus, and a shaduf. The shaduf, a counterbalanced device that allowed workers to lift water from the Nile into irrigation canals, is one of the exhibit's most popular displays. Everyone, it seems, has to take a turn at pulling the bucket into the water, then lifting it into the canal.
``Now, you could do any amount of explaining about how that works,'' Spock says. But ``until you actually get a chance to do it yourself, you don't really understand it.''
Other displays draw children's hands, almost by magic. One beckons them to take up a stone polisher, sprinkle sand on a large pyramid stone, and learn how the Egyptians smoothed their pyramids (while making a racket that echoes 50 feet away). Or they race to a mirrored exhibit to line up their face with an Egyptian image to see how they might have looked 3,000 years ago.
The emphasis on hands-on displays probably stems from Spock's 23 years as director of the Boston Children's Museum, which he left in 1985 to come here. He is the son of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician.
``All of us start out voraciously curious as kids,'' he says. But in many families children's questions go unanswered. ``What we learn as a result of that is to tamp down those fires of curiosity - to not even pay attention to them.''
But ``I think there's a chance if you provide an institution ... to keep that flame alive.''
``Inside Ancient Egypt'' is a major permanent exhibit and the middle tier of a three-level outreach to the public. First-time museumgoers might visit the museum's informal exhibits, such as ``Sizes,'' where children can try to jump their height and adults can sit at an oversize table and feel what it's like to be child-size again.
Other visitors might venture to a major exhibit like that on Egypt or the next one, ``Traveling the Pacific,'' due to open Nov. 11. If something sparked particular interest, the museumgoer could visit the museum's resource centers - the third tier of this systematized arrangement of knowledge. Only one of these centers - Webber Resource Center for Native American Cultures - is complete so far. But more are planned. There, scholars and even students can research the museum's extensive collections of books, films, and other materials.
This systemization of knowledge is what sets the Field Museum apart, Spock says. And some national museum experts agree.
``Now with Michael and other people who have been [brought] together, the Field will probably take the lead'' among natural history museums, says one such expert privately. ``I think you will see a lot of innovation come out of there.''
```Ancient Egypt' is a wonderful romantic idea,'' says Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. ``I think what Spock has done is remarkable.''
But the Field's innovation has its critics. The ``Sizes'' exhibit was viewed as weak by some in the museum community, concedes Willard Boyd, the Field Museum's president. And even at the museum, a display of Levi's jeans from the smallest (Size 10 waist) to the largest (Size 76 waist) drew so much internal criticism that Mr. Boyd ordered them detachable so that they wouldn't become a source of friction at staff parties.
But museumgoers seem uniformly enthusiastic.
``We've been here about six times already,'' says Phyllis Delrosario of suburban Chicago, looking at her son, Drew. ``He loves it. He's four years old and he knows it by heart.... It's wonderful!''
Drew agrees.``I like to see the mummies in the box.''