Museum of Science and Industry to launch online site devoted to unseen treasures

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Wednesday, March 20, 2024
Chicago museum to launch online site for unseen treasures
Later this year, the Museum of Science and Industry will launch an online site devoted to these unseen treasures from the institution's permanent collection.

CHICAGO -- In the 90 years since Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry first opened its doors in late 1933, the institution has hosted more than 190 million people.

Those visitors have been educated and entertained by a variety of exhibits, both permanent and temporary, devoted primarily to science and technology.

The temporary exhibits include present-day favorites, like a hands-on feature focusing on the science and technology behind the James Bond movies.

And those permanent exhibits include long-time favorites, like the full-sized German World War II sub, the U-505; the Coal Mine; Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle, an elaborate dollhouse created by the eponymous silent film star; and the Baby Chick Hatchery.

But few visitors know of the unseen permanent collection at the Museum of Science and Industry.

"The Museum of Science and Industry has a large and pretty incredible collection of scientific and industrial technologies and objects, and they have been collecting since 1929, which was several years before the museum even opened," MSI curator Voula Saridakis said. "And most of the objects in the collection come from the mid-1800s, all the way to the present. As they were planning the museum, they knew that they would want these objects for the museum, even before it opened in 1933."

In fact, there are some 30,000 artifacts that are part of this unseen permanent collection. Many of these items graced the main floors of the Museum of Science and Industry at one point or another. But now, they are behind the scenes, in a climate-controlled basement of the beautiful, 130-year old building, which originally was the Palace of Fine Arts, constructed for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Saridakis recently took an ABC7 Chicago crew down to the bowels of the museum, to show off some of these rarely seen treasures.

They include some incredible artifacts, like a massive, hollowed tree trunk that is at least 12 feet in length. But while it looks like a tree trunk, it is actually a piece of sewer pipe used in London during the late 17th century, before metal was commonly used for infrastructure.

"It was a gift from the British government, and it probably is the oldest artifact in our collection," Saridakis said.

Other notable, diverse artifacts stored in the museum's basement include a piece of graphite from the world's first nuclear reactor, which was located in the basement of the now-demolished Stagg Field on the campus of the University of Chicago; a massive horse-drawn water engine used to extinguish fires in the late 19th century; and a machine used to generate static electricity, used by physicians in the early 20th century.

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"It's all about this evolution in ideas in technology and innovation," Saridakis said. "We have over 30,000 artifacts in our collections storage, and they cover a wide range of different subjects from communications to scientific apparatus to spaceships, so all sorts of different artifacts that really help us to paint this very interesting picture of where we've come from in the past."

Perhaps the oddest artifact is an object called "The Violet Ray," an antique medical appliance from the early 20th century, which was actually used for electrotherapy.

"It really an example of quack medicine," Saridakis said. And the reason it's called Violet Ray is because it emitted violet-colored rays. And this was intended to create these low electric currents that were meant to increase circulation in the body, and was touted to solve everything from acne to warts, abscesses, acne, alopecia, anemia, everything from A to Z."

One dominant feature of this unseen collection is transportation from the past. There are early motorcycles from companies like Henderson and Harley Davidson, which date back to the 1910s, along with other fascinating artifacts, like an engine from the Spitfire, the World War II fighter plane, which was actually made by Rolls-Royce.

"A lot of people don't realize that Rolls-Royce used to make engines for airplanes and that they didn't just make cars, especially in that time period," Saridakis said.

There's a reason why transportation is so heavily represented in the collection.

"At the time the Museum of Science and Industry first opened in 1933, the Century of Progress World's Fair was going on in Chicago (on Northerly Island)," Saridakis said. "So the founders of the museum courted those manufacturers and individuals who were showcasing everything at the Century of Progress World's Fair. And that's actually where they got the first several hundred objects that are part of the permanent collection here at the museum."

Later this year, the Museum of Science and Industry will launch an online site devoted to these unseen treasures from the institution's permanent collection.

"This will be the first time that we will be placing our artifacts online," Saridakis said. "Visitors will be able to go to the website, click on the collections page, and they will get to see the hundreds and eventually thousands of artifacts that we have stored here."

No date has been set yet for the launch of this page. But Saridakis said that the idea of making this collection more accessible to the public is driven by a desire to educate visitors about our technological past.

"The idea is to look at these artifacts, so that they help us how technology has evolved since the 19th century," she said.