The largest science museum in the western hemisphere, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry is home to more than 400000 square feet of exhibits that encourage curiosity and help develop scientific temper. Prominent exhibits include a full-sized replica of a coal mine, German submarine U-505 which was captured during WW2, 3500 square foot model railroad, and the first diesel-powered streamlined stainless steel passenger train, Pioneer Zephyr. It attracts nearly two million visitors every year.
In 1893, the city of Chicago, Illinois played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the “New World”. It was a turning point for Chicago’s history and helped cement its position as a center of culture and commerce. The building that houses the Museum of Science and Industry was previously home to the Palace of Fine Arts from 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Built-in true Beaux-Arts style, The Palace of Fine Arts is the only building constructed as a part of exposition’s chief architect Daniel Burnham’s “White City” that remains. Designed by Charles Atwood under Burnham’s direction, it features a typical neoclassical façade – perfectly symmetrical with classical ornamentation such as ionic columns, garlands and caryatids, and white plastering. Unlike the other White City buildings, The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed with a brick substructure to be fireproof to ensure protection for the priceless works of art it carried. Till 1920 the building served as the home of the Field Museum of Natural History and was suffering from disintegration due to neglect. It was rebuilt of more permanent materials from 1928 to 1932, especially the exterior which was recast in limestone to retain its Beaux-arts style. The Museum of Science and Industry was opened to the public during the city’s Century of Progress Exposition (1933–34). The interiors of the building were remodeled in 1933 in the Art Moderne style under the direction of architect Alfred Shaw.
The Museum of Science and Industry is arranged in the form of a cross with a dome rising above its center. The main structure covers an area of 320 feet by 500 feet. It is intersected by a nave with a transept one hundred feet wide and seventy feet high, and a central dome sixty feet wide and one hundred feet high surmounted by a winged figure of Victory. It is surrounded by a gallery forty feet wide. The building is divided into four great courts known as the north, south, east, and west court. These courts lead into the building’s grand central dome. In connection with the main structure are two pavilions or annexes 120 by 200 feet in dimensions, which are also used to display exhibits. An exterior colonnade extends from each pavilion to the north and south courts of the main building.
Today the museum features over 35000 artifacts and exhibits spread over 400000 square feet of exhibition space. It features an 800 seat auditorium and Chicago’s only 5 stored domed movie theatres. On each of the three levels of the museum, one can explore the various permanent and temporary exhibits.
Upon entering the museum one is greeted by the Pioneer Zephyr train exhibit in the Entry Hall. It was the first diesel-powered streamlined stainless-steel train.
The Lower level exhibits include U-505 – a German submarine captured during WW2, model ships, farming technology, and equipment, and the Apollo 8 spacecraft, which is housed in the Henry Crown Space Centre which is Chicago’s only domed theatre.
The main level of the Museum of Science and Industry is host to exhibits such as a mirror maze, Transportation Gallery, Coal mine replica, and Yesterday’s Mainstreet, a mock-up of a Chicago street from the early 20th century.
The second or balcony level consists of exhibits of fighter jets and model navy warships, and a walkthrough model of the human heart.
The building strikes a balance between the old and new, and past and present. It provides a rare insight into the architecture of the Fair and yet has been adopted as one of the top cultural institutions in Chicago.