Mapping Chicago @ the Chicago History Museum

Mapping Chicago, the inaugural exhibit in the Chicago History Museum's new Skyline gallery, is also one of the inaugural exhibits in Chicago's Festival of Maps. The show, which opened near the end of September, divides the spacious new gallery into three distinct areas, each with its own theme, and shows the city of Chicago in various stages of its history, and from a variety of distinct perspectives. Overall it's a bit of a grab-bag, but certainly worth your while.

Cities are places with vast histories comprised of millions upon millions of stories stretched across hundreds (sometimes thousands) of years. As the curators of Mapping Chicago point out several times in this exhibit (most entertainingly, at one point, in the rather incredulous "voice" of the city itself) it is virtually impossible to create a map of a city that really encapsulates what Chicago is about. Buildings go up and are torn down, streets are widened or erased, demographics shift as people come and go, and all of this contributes to the fact that as soon as a map of a place as dynamic as Chicago is made, it is in some way already out of date.

The first area of the exhibit, then, attempts to piece together a historic portrait of the city. From a detailed map of the area destroyed by the Great Fire to a map of the original settlement showing the original Native American trails that crisscrossed the area, this introductory set makes no attempt to show Chicago as it is. The unofficial centerpiece here, a wall-sized full-color birds-eye view map of the Loop from the early 1900s drawn in exquisite detail, subtly underlines the show's message; of the many large and grand structures that surely seemed as permanent as time itself when this map was completed, only a few are still around today. Even monumental constructions like the old Federal Building or the Masonic Temple (then the city's tallest building) are long gone.

It's in the second area that the exhibit sags a bit as it veers rather noticeably off course to demonstrate by video and through several kid-friendly kiosks how two-dimensional maps are formed into globes. Replogle Globes, a major manufacturer of the objects, is a sponsor of the installation. This middle section is interesting in and of itself, as it answers in careful detail one of those questions that you'd never thought to ask but find yourself very curious about once it's been asked for you. Still, the section can't help feeling like a commercial in the middle of a good show since the subject matter is only tangentially (at best) connected to that of the overall exhibit. At any rate, it's fun for kids, and certainly no reason to skip Mapping Chicago altogether.

The third and final area is separated from the other two by a very unconventional map made up of a cluster of very large, very colorful representations of Chicago landmarks. It is a sculptural creation made of oversized drawings by children from around the city that sets the tone for the area of the exhibit that shows how the diverse and divergent perceptions of the city by its many inhabitants over the years has created some very interesting and unconventional maps of the city. A pinball machine printed with a map of the 1933 World's Fair, a color-coded map of building heights in the Loop in the early 20th Century, large digitally-produced maps of SOM's plan for the city's 2016 Olympic bid -- all of these and more are on display in this part of the exhibit. Together, they bring home the message that a city like Chicago is a constantly-changing thing, exciting and mysterious in the way that it constantly eludes the cartographer. The city is the subject in all of these maps, but ironically this collection, brought together, puts the focus on the map-makers. After all, in the end it is the people -- not the physical environment -- that make the city what it is at any given moment.

Mapping Chicago is on display at the Chicago History Museum until January 6th, 2008. The museum is open seven days a week; the entry fee is $14 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12. Hours vary, so check the website for more details. While you're there, if you are in need of some more map action, don't miss the permanent exhibit Chicago: Crossroads of America, which features a number of detailed maps from the city's two world's fairs. Also on display: gorgeous architectural models of the Chrysler Motors and Transportation Buildings from the '33 Fair.

Mapping Chicago (Chicago History Museum)

(PS -- Where is back in business! Thanks to all of the fine people at the North Michigan Avenue Apple Store who saved my hard drive and, by extension, my sanity. They are awesome.)

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