How much of the Field Museum’s collection is actually on display?

The bulk of the museum’s objects are out of sight, but not necessarily out of mind

January 3, 2013

Katie Klocksin

Curious City: How much of the Field Museum’s collection is actually on display? from WBEZ on Vimeo.

James Kowalski’s question for Curious City is probably the most math-intensive one we’ve had yet:

How many objects do the Field Museum and Art Institute have in their collections at any given time, and what percentage of that is on display?

The details are pretty straightforward, at least according to sources we consulted. Last month we dealt with the Art Institute angle. If you don’t recall the answer, here’s the skinny: It’s got 270,000 works of art in its collection, with maybe 3-5 percent on display at any given time.

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Hear the conversation on the Afternoon Shift!

But how large is the Field Museum’s collection? It's 25  million strong, give or take an artifact or two. And, less than 1 percent of the items are on display at any given time. “The rest are one of the best research collections in the world for all types of biological and cultural diversity,” says Dr. John Bates, the Field’s Associate Curator of Birds.

Well, there’s the math and, as promised, the answer’s pretty straightforward. But the stories behind some of these 25 million items? Anything but.

Why you’re hearing a story, and not just seeing one

James and I felt the numbers were so mind-boggling that we took a closer look at a few of the museum’s hidden items (you can, too, by watching the video above). Alan Francisco from the Anthropology department acted as our guide in the Collections Resource Center, a massive 186,000 square foot storage facility. The room holds an incredible hodge-podge of massive objects. Most of the anthropology collection is organized by region, but we got to visit the room where a partially finished totem pole shares space with bronze bath tubs from an area near ancient Pompeii. And there are large textiles there, too.

A few of the objects, though, got me in the mood to tell a story, and the spark came after Fransicso opened a drawer of cloaks that are from the Maori people of New Zealand. “These are incredibly important,” he explained. “In fact we’ve had Maori people come and study the collections.” In addition to conducting research and loaning artifacts to researchers elsewhere, Francisco said, “we are also at this point in our history connecting people who are the descendants of the people who made these objects get a little closer to their past.”

I found a backstory along those lines, one which is best told in audio (see our handy soundcloud player for help on that).

 

Francisco added that, for many cultures “whole traditions have sort of disappeared. And as new generations come along, that say: ‘We want to revive drumming,’ for instance. They actually don’t know how to make the drums that they used. So we send them photos. They come, they study the collections so that they can make something authentic. ‘What is the cord made of, that binds the drum together? What’s the knot that they use to tie it?’ I mean, these seem like fundamental and very simple things, but they wouldn’t be able to do it if these collections hadn’t been preserved.”

In some cases, though, other cultures have kept their traditions strong, and Field Museum curators have been the ones seeking information. 

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