Questions answered: Museum collections, where the Bulls live, and Chicago’s first non-wooden building

A potpourri of mini-questions and answers

December 4, 2012

Jennifer Brandel

(WBEZ/Logan Jaffe)
A glimpse into the archives of the Field Museum.

We continue to serve up answers from our first-ever Curious City trivia bowl, which took place late last month. If you missed it, have no fear; we’ll likely do another one in 2013.

For the trivia bowl we took 10 questions posed by curious citizens. Each was bite-sized in scope; the answers, though, provided plenty to chew on, and we’ve got three of them ready for you. Another bunch includes: how much the city spends on ornamental planting, the location of Chicago’s oldest sidewalk, and why ketchup’s taboo when it comes to Chicago-style hot-dogs.

Stockpiles of art and objects

Curious City: Amount of items in the collections of the Field Museum and Art Institute? from WBEZ on Vimeo.

James Kowalski from Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood wanted to know:

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?

This question required some serious legwork, enough that we had to break out of the cubicles. Freelance reporter Katie Klocksin accompanied James to get some answers at the Field Museum, and she got the skinny from Art Institute as well.

We’ll give Katie’s treatment pride of place on our website soon, as she dug up some great details that deserve more time, but in terms of answering James’ question about art, here’s the gist: The Institute has approximately 270,000 works of art in its collection, and just 3-5 percent of that collection is exhibited at any given time (equal to about 8,000 items).

According to Director of Public Affairs Erin Hogan, the Art Institute’s limited space is not the rationale for stowing away most of the collection; instead, it has to do more with protecting the art from fading or other kinds of damage. Explaining how storage works for photographs, Hogan said the space is almost like a meat locker. “It’s very very cold,” she said. “You have to wear a jacket to be in there, but that’s the proper way to preserve color photography.”

As for the Field Museum, Katie and James found there’s a storage site beneath the building. During a visit there with Curious City intern Logan Jaffe, they learned the Field Museum has 25 million artifacts and that less than 1 percent of their collection is on exhibit! (Yep. We feel that fact deserves an exclamation point).
 
Turns out most of their artifacts are used for research and aren’t intended for display in the first place, according to John Bates, the Associate Curator of Birds. This is especially true in the zoology department, where the group saw jars of frogs and drawers full of birds for study.  

But according to the anthropology department’s collections coordinator, Alan Francisco, weight can also be a factor for display. Francisco showed Katie, James and Logan the room where particularly large anthropological items are stored, including a sarcophagus that had to be kept in the basement because it was too heavy for the museum floors. He said the museum used to put nearly everything in the anthropology collection on display, but as the collection grew they weren't able to accommodate everything and now much of it sits in a vast storage area.

Logan described the space this way: “It’s like a Home Depot, except everything is ancient and fascinating. There are rows and rows of racks up to the ceilings, movable crates and deep containers that seem like they could be storing plywood, but instead have in them African spears and Roman baths.”

The room is tightly secured and has an elaborate ventilation system to ensure objects remain dry and at the right temperature. Francisco showed them an incredible array of objects, including a stucco arch from the ancient city of Kish, just South of modern-day Baghdad.
 
“Kish was one of the first cities in human existence,” Francisco explained. “It was, according to Mesopotamian belief, where the gods came down to earth and gave kingship and order to mankind.”

As we said, plenty to chew on. At least we thought so. But James? (It was his question, after all.)

“Getting to actually see the insides and the belly of the Field Museum was just mind-blowing,” he said. “And the amazing part is that what’s down there actually fits the imagination, the fantasy, of what you think is down there, so that was pretty cool.”

Where the Bulls lay their heads

Curious City: Where do the Bulls players live? from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Jon Kirby from Chicago’s Noble Square neighborhood came up with this question:

I kinda want to know where all the basketball players live ― because it’s either on top of a tall building or in big a house way far away from all of us and I just don’t know which one it is.

We were surprised to find out that they really only live in three areas, according to WBEZ sports blogger Cheryl Raye-Stout.

She said they’re in Chicago’s Loop, but some are also in Northbrook, in particular the permanent players who have houses. Cheryl added there’s a third group in Deerfield, right by the Berto (practice) center. There’s a hotel there, she said, and that’s where players without contracts tend to stay.

“So those are the three main areas,” Cheryl told me. “They don’t live other places because they like to be concentrated, and that’s where they get steered ― in those three directions.”

I spoke with Cheryl before news broke about a new Bulls practice facility downtown United Center. She says once the facility is ready in around two years, she expects a lot of current players won’t be with the team anymore and the others will likely move downtown or closer to the new practice space.

First non-wooden building in Chicago


Curious City: The first non-wooden building in Chicago from WBEZ on Vimeo.

Sharzi from Naperville wanted to know:

“What was the first non-wooden building ever built in the city of Chicago? And who built it?" Got any guesses?”

We picked the brain of Chicago’s Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson for this one. He knew right away and said it was a gunpowder magazine (a kind of storage building for weapons) at Fort Dearborn circa 1803-1808.

He told us: “You had to have a masonry building to keep your gun powder in because it has a tendency to go ka-boom! So, amidst this early fort in the middle of the swamps of Chicago there was a powder magazine. This was done by the United States government and Captain Whistler ― who actually came and supervised the construction of the fort, bringing in the men and the materials ― to create it.”

Of course the original Fort Dearborn structures have long since disappeared, but there are some in-ground plaques at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. And if you’re jonesing to see a miniature model of it, head to the Chicago History Museum.