If you typed the word "maps" into Google and then visited the first ten sites on the results page, you might get a good idea of what it feels like to walk through the Museum of Science and Industry's exhibit National Geographic's Maps: Tools for Adventure, which is part of the citywide Festival of Maps. That is to say: a nuanced overview of mapping technology, this is not. While the exhibit is kid-friendly, it tries a bit too hard to go after the attention deficit demographic. Thematically, the "tools for adventure" theme is the loose string that sort of ties things somewhat together, almost. In fact, between this, the City of the Future exhibit earlier this year, and the Christmas Around the World disaster that we'll discuss in a minute, I'm beginning to wonder if, perhaps, this legendary museum is just coasting on its historical reputation these days.
But, before a tangent begins, let's get back to NGM. The exhibit is, in plain terms, an awkward hybrid of a video arcade, a preschool classroom, and a museum installation. There are kiosks set up throughout several rooms, as well as a block table (a kid-friendly trick MS&I tried with City of the Future that still feels misplaced) and a large foam-block pyramid puzzle. Add to that a moon rover used for mapping Mars, a fake stargazing setup, and an airplane cockpit with plenty of buttons and levers, and you have an intellectual seizure that can even make the grown-ups a bit dizzy.
If the organization of the content is less than stellar, it should be noted that there are some interesting items on display. A portion of an old scroll map of the Mississippi River makes an early appearance, as does an early map of Disneyland (which is cooler than it sounds). But the overall effect of the topical schizophrenia is that, unfortunately, individual pieces get lost in the muddle. Even for someone used to clicking through a few hundred articles and websites a day, the wide variety of topics covered here was so overwhelming that it got downright boring halfway through. When the brain is presented with too much information, it shuts down. I shudder to think that this is the way the curators at one of the nation's most prestigious museums think that children should be taught (to be fair, the exhibit was organized by the Children's Museum of Indianapolis and the National Geographic Society, but MS&I agreed to host it).
But the real jaw-dropper of the day was not the FoM exhibit, but something tangentially related. Apparently, it is customary for the MS&I to put together a Christmas Around the World exhibit. I haven't been to the museum to see past iterations, but this year the exhibit involves Christmas trees decorated to represent "customs" from countries around the world. This provides the museum with a fabulous opportunity to combat Americans' infamously low geographic knowledge, which it squanders on an embarrassingly simplified version of global cultures.
To wit: Mexico's tree is decorated with dozens of felt-cutout Mexicans complete with sombreros and ponchos, Ireland's is dripping with kitschy shamrocks and jigging leprechauns, and there is a very purple Native American Christmas tree that's decked out in a gazillion of those hexagonal things you make out of yarn in kindergarten. Japan's and China's trees, meanwhile, are both covered in oragami (but the China tree uses fluorescent paper, so it's totally different), and (tellingly) the United States' tree is wrapped in red, white, and blue crepe paper and cardboard cutouts of the 50 states and the US outlying territories. It's as strange as it sounds. In fact, it's worse in person. The entire exhibit has the icky, sticky feeling that comes from seeing or hearing something that you don't quite want to call racist, but can't help admitting is kind of leaning in a generally gross direction. The museum's website claims that the trees are decorated by Chicago's ethnic groups to represent their cultures. And to that I say: whaaaa? If that's the case with most of these, it makes me kind of sad.
So if you are looking to learn about the world and how it was and is shaped and explored, skip the MS&I and check out the Field Museum instead. Or the Newberry Library. Or, you know...Google Maps.
But, just in case you want to see this stuff for yourself...
IF YOU GO
National Geographic's Maps: Tools for Adventure is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry until January 6, 2008. The museum is open Monday – Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the admission fee is $11 for adults, $9.50 for seniors, and $7 for children under 11. There is no student discount. Christmas Around the World also runs through January 6. While you're in the Hyde Park area, check out The Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome: The Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, the University of Chicago's contribution to the Festival of Maps.
National Geographic's Maps: Tools for Adventure (MS&I)
Christmas Around the World (MS&I)
The Virtual Tourist in Renaissance Rome: The Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (U of C)
Festival of Maps