Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Day At The Museum

I always marvel at the ways museums present the past and future. The past is usually in a glass case or mounted on the wall. The future is hands-on.

Such was the case with our visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, the 75-old relic that continues to reinvent itself. Although first opened as an arts exhibition hall in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition, the museum has morphed into the largest science and technology museum in the Western hemisphere. Like many great venues, you can't possibly see it in one day and each subsequent visit inspires awe and wonder.

I was happy to escort my two daughters Sarah (almost 12) and Julia, 8, to this colossus of the imagination. When I was their age (doesn't that make me sound ancient?), I was thrilled to go into the fake coal mine, see the ultra-low-tech Foucault pendulum swinging in a circle to show the earth's rotation (it's a big brass ball suspended from a three-story cable) and the chicks hatching in an incubator (still a big draw). Now there are interactive exhibits on genetics, petroleum, space and the haunting U-505 submarine.

The U-boat is much better than I remembered because the museum built a real powerful exhibit around it. Captured off the coast of Africa near the end of World War II, it was the first ship boarded and captured by the U.S. Navy since 1815. Although its captain attempted to scuttle it, the American sailors bravely stopped it from sinking and towed it to Bermuda enroute to the East Coast. After the war, it made it all the way up the St. Lawrence Seaway and to 57th and Lake Shore Drive, where it was rolled across the highway. My Dad told me tonight that this event (in 1954) slowed his progress to a date with my Mom (then his fiance). "Not too many people can say they were stopped by a submarine -- on a highway," he said with a chuckle.

For those of you who know World War II history, before the atom bomb, the U-boat was Nazi Germany's weapon of mass destruction, sinking thousands of ships and taking the lives of more than 55,000 sailors, most of whom were in convoys attempting to supply Great Britain. The Germans didn't have much of a navy, but the U-boat could strike and slink away before the advent of fully functional sonar, radar and submarine task forces. There's a stunning graphic in the exhibit that shows how many ships were sunk during the war. It brings tears to your eyes.

Aboard the sub, it's tight and hot. Diesel engines, which only could have run when the sub had surfaced, brought the interior temperature to 100 degrees. There weren't enough bunks for all of the sailors and if you were over 6 feet, you had to hunch nearly everywhere. There were no showers (sailors bathed with alcohol) and no privacy during your three-month tour. The mortality rate was 70 percent. I'm not sure why this is fascinating now, nor why my girls were interested in this death machine. Yet it's like immersing yourself in a tangible fantasy, a scary world of steel and isolation. In many ways, it's better than fiction. When you leave the exhibit, you are chastened by the mechanics of war, knowing that even when we are clever, the destruction is almost unfathomable.

After Julia made some slime in an experimental station, we saw a splendid IMAX movie called "Wild Ocean" about billions of sardines making their way up the coast of South Africa into the maw of waiting predators like gannets, sharks, dolphins and seals. The beauty was mesmerizing -- ranging from Zulu fisherman dancing before they set out to the dive-bombing gannets in a feeding frenzy. Like most of the nature films these days, there's an unavoidable global warming/conservation angle to it: About 12 percent of the earth's surface is protected in nature reserves or parks. Less than .001 percent of the ocean is off limits to exploitation. If we destroy the web of life in the ocean, we're in deep trouble.

There are many objects of beauty and wonder in the museum that always seem to come out of nowhere. The Burlington Zephyr train, a streamlined dandy from the 1930s, still looks elegant. The airplanes hanging from the ceiling, a Boeing 727, German Stuka, British Spitfire and Wright's bi-plane still look stunning.

The best exhibits engage your hands and your mind. One thing that I hadn't planned on seeing, but sort of popped up on our way, was called "Fast Forward."It was about inventors trying to change the world. It wasn't a large venue, although I think it resonated the most with me. One designer was planning "vertical farms" in skyscrapers. Another was making clothes in which you could experience a "hug" transmitted from someone else. A carmaker named Dana Myers ( was manufacturing a one-person, all-electric car that could go as fast as 75 miles an hour. When the price tag drops under $20,000, I'll be a customer. You could even make music by moving blocks on a coffee table. That was way cool.

The museum ( is open every day except for Christmas. If you're going back, it makes sense to become a member, as we did. They throw in discounts in the gift shop and food court and knock $4 off the parking (a stiff $14). Also included are free IMAX tickets and lots of other benefits.

All told, one day at the museum is better than 100 hours of iPod and Xbox playing. The imagination is something that needs to be exercised on a regular basis.

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