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Chicago 2000 (06 Apr 2002)

Three days to tour three Egyptian exhibits. Can he do it, and not lose his camera? Tune in and find out. Plus: a comparative review of museum beverages. You don't want to miss it.

Chicago Gallery (06 Apr 2002)

A gallery of photographs taken on a recent trip to Chicago with as little commentary as possible.

The "I Am Not A Seat Number" Tour Of England (06 Apr 2002)

Sample diary entries and nasty photos from my trip to England in March 1998.

Archives

Links to older articles.


Chicago 2000

06 Apr 2002

I went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to tour the Egyptian museum galleries and to see the "Pharaohs Of The Sun" show of Amarna period loot. I planned to hit three galleries in three days, which is a fine idea if you've been in training for that kind of extravaganza. As usual, a complete failure to stretch beforehand left me footsore and weary at the end of every day, but I did see some very nice things.

The Field Museum
Sue, sketching Egyptian coffins, mummies, the Memphis Marketplace, Star Wars, the Adler Planetarium

The Oriental Institute
Bird watching, Meresamun, Tutankhamun, The Book Of The Dead, a butcher, a potter, old friends, owls, netted fish

Pharaohs Of The Sun
Statue commentary, Tutmose on a bier, Description De L'Egypt

Museum Beverages
Being an absolutely pointless comparison of lemonades served in a selection of world-class museums



The Field Museum Of Natural History

The Field Museum, located on Chicago's waterfront, is open from 9 to 5 daily. And so I was there from 9 to 5. This should tell you something about my fanaticism for museums.

Sue (head and shoulders) with portrait
Sue, the 65 million-year-old T-Rex (foreground),
with a more recent portrait (background).

When you come in the south entrance, the first thing you see is Sue. She's a great big Tyrannosaurus Rex (Regina) skeleton that was recently mounted and put on display. It's the largest and best preserved specimen yet found, and it's quite lovely. Getting there early was definitely an asset because as the morning wore on, it began to rain, and before long the place was heaving with glassy-eyed pram-pushing parents and their restless kids.

Get your mouse off of me. If you think that Sue looks scary, know that she is nothing compared to a child who is hyped on Crank. (Where do they get that stuff anyway? Are there pushers shuffling in the cold outside of daycares, offering free samples? One moment they're little darlings, the next they're Catherine Wheels, dropping sparks on everything you wish they wouldn't touch.)

You can walk all around Sue with a portable cue card which points out some of the more interesting aspects of the skeleton you might be apt to miss. That the bump on her rib is a sign that it had broken and then healed. That the teeth are serrated, and that some of the holes in the jaw were for blood vessels.

 

While Sue is great, I spent most of the day in the Egyptian gallery. You enter a tomb on the ground floor and then go down into the "burial chambers" in the basement where the mummies and the bulk of artifacts are kept. What a lot of nice stuff they have there. I spent three quarters of an hour drawing the rather tidy wooden coffin of a man named Nakht who lived in the 1st Intermediate Period. It sported 2 horizontal registers of writing in turquoise paint, 4 pairs of vertical registers, a pair of wadjet eyes looking out at you.

There is nothing like copying hieroglyphs to improve your penmanship, let me tell you. There are 17 instances of a seated god (A40) which I have never been really good at drawing. Until now. Still -- by the end, I was overheard to mutter "Not another damned god!" more than once.

Besides improving your writing, sketching also attracts the curious visitors, many of whom stop to chat, which is something I really enjoy as it turns out. A lot of people are quite curious about the stuff, and while the signage at the Field is outstanding, there are no fanatics to talk to. So I gladly read the coffins to anyone who asked -- glossing a bit to cover the gaps in my knowledge -- and they went away happy. And I have a copy of a coffin.

Sue from the second floor


More than just coffins

There's a lot more than just coffins. There's one of Senwosret's wooden boats there. The real thing, as big as life. Mummified cats. A 1 m3 block of limestone which you are invited to move with a rope harness. Mummies. Lots of them.

But the thing I thought was just terrific was the "Memphis Market". They took a scene from the tomb of "The Two Brothers" that has about 20 vignettes of a marketplace. There are people trading figs for pottery. A woman holding on to her younger sister (?) who asks if she should go now (???). A policeman with his trained baboon on the lookout for thieves. It goes on an on. They've reproduced this scene, and have painted it up in bright colours. Then they've make enlarged copies of each vignette with its hieroglyphs translated and put into cartoon speech balloons beside whomever's speaking. There's lots of well-written text that describes what's going on. And then nearby, they've got display cases showing the artifacts that appear in the paintings. Near a scene showing people weighing out grain, there was a set of real stone weights for you to look at. Nothing enhances your understanding of the artifacts like a little context.

One of the thing I especially liked about the text in the Market is that it discussed both the things we know, and the things we don't know. For example -- there's a scene with a seated man and a standing nude woman. She is holding a young girl by the hand. The text actually says that we don't know why they're naked, but here are a couple of possible reasons. It says we can't tell what the relationship between the woman and the girl is (are they sisters? Is the older one her mother? Or nanny?) Next time you're in a museum, read one of the label cards and see if it shows as much candor.


Star Wars

When I bought my ticket to the museum, they asked if I wanted one that would also get me into the "Star Wars" exhibit. "Star Wars?" I scoffed. "Yes, please." What the hell. I knew my eyes would need a change by the end of the day. And so with about 20 minutes before closing, I raced through an almost deserted exhibit hall of "Star Wars" junk, and I mean "junk" in the most reverential sense because it was all junk from the actual productions. When you stand toe to toe with a model of a star destroyer, you can rest assured that this was really the one they used in "The Empire Strikes Back." Nice model; it's big.

They had Alec Guinness' costume, complete with light saber. By some creepy coincidence, I saw it on the very day that Sir Alec died. (Also, I had a snack later -- just as Guinness himself used to do -- although I suspect this is less of a coincidence.)

Now, when you look at all of this stuff, you can't help but notice how much it looks like the real thing (let's pretend there really is a "real thing"), but they still look like props. A model space ship is still a model because you know that in life they must be very large and heavy, and are not at all the sorts of things you're likely to find in the basement of a museum (unless you're in the Smithsonian.)

There was, of course, one exception. Near the half-way point, you turn a corner, and come face to face with Yoda. In a bell jar. And it's obviously not a Yoda puppet, or even a body double; it's the real thing. I say that because there is no difference between what you see on the screen and the thing in front of you, under glass. And that makes it real. Or at least more real than anything else there. Zen masters could not have set me a better koan to puzzle over as I skimmed past the rest of the do-dads, leaving via the inevitable gift shop.


Comfy Chairs

After leaving the the Field, I dropped into the nearby Adler Planetarium to catch a quick sky show. They have a lovely Zeiss planetarium projector (a Model IV, made in West Germany. It's dumbbell shaped, like the one that used to be in the Toronto McLaughlin Planetarium). Accept no substitutes! Don't be disappointed by another dim Digistar projector that couldn't light a dome the size of a robin's egg. Zeiss. Mmmm.

Where was I?

Not just now, but then too. I love planetariums, but every time I visit one, I'm reminded of just how bone achingly tired I am at that moment. Maybe it's the lure of the air conditioned darkness, or maybe it's the comfy chairs, but before the show is out, I find myself dodging a minefield of micronaps.

Chicago. Hotbed of activity.
The Chicago skyline seen from the Adler Planetarium. Off in
the distance, you can see a marina where the boats' riggings
ping against the masts in the wind. How do you take a picture
of that sound?



The Oriental Institute

The Oriental Institute is on the campus of the University of Chicago, a short electric train ride south of The Loop, where I was staying. The campus environs are lovely, and if you ever have a free Sunday morning, its quiet tree-lined streets are just the thing. There are gorgeous low rise apartment buildings on the streets I toured, and even a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright thrown in for free.

 

A fire escape counter weight...   ... where sparrows were nesting

Arriving early, I had an hour to kill before the OI opened, and spent some of it wandering around campus. I found an old iron fire escape ladder with this counterweight attached to it. There are many like it in Chicago, and I felt I needed a picture of one. And then I noticed that there were a family of sparrows living in it, and so I pretended to be a nature photographer and shot the parents feeding the nestlings.

I had been warned that the Egyptian gallery was not large, and yet I still managed to spend about 4 hours in its air conditioned splendor. Armed with my new portrait lens and absolutely the wrong kind of film, I shot a bunch of slides. Here are some of the ones I'm at least marginally pleased with.


This is Meresamun, a woman with a lovely cartonnage. She really is quite a looker, and I spent a lot of time trying to get a decent picture of her that didn't have reflected lights all over it. It's times like this when you need a friend in a black shirt who you can strategically position to kill the reflections. Read more about Meresamun.

Meresamun

Meresamun

Tutankhamun This could be the most famous face from ancient Egypt. Everyone I have shown it to guesses his identity correctly. Or is it that most people can only name one pharaoh anyway? Doesn't matter. This is Tutankhamun, the young man whose tomb was found intact in 1922.

This is a tiny picture of a colossal statue. If you go to the museum, be sure to look on the plinth at his left side. There, you'll find two small feet which are all that's left of a statue of his wife, Ankhesenpaamun. Despite the King's overwhelming size, I was more concerned about his missing wife. How was she depicted? Was she, like him, striding forward, or might she have been giving him a sideways look, a quiet wink? I only hope they managed to find each other in the next world.

Read more about this statue.


It's no secret that I'm a book nut, is it? No thrill compares to hefting an antique volume: the coloured end papers, the curve of the binding, thinking about the hands through which the book has passed...

This is a detail from a papyrus scroll of the Book Of The Dead. I especially like the snakes which you can barely see here. The linework is so dark and crisp you could convince yourself it was made only a few hundred years ago (it's actually about 2000 years old).

Read more about this scroll.

Yartiuerow's Book Of The Dead

Butchering a calf I didn't expect to see anyone I knew when I went to the museum, so it was great to see these two old friends who have spent the last year travelling with the Egypt In The Age Of The Pyramids exhibit. How nice to be able to get up close to them without competing with hordes of people.

Read about the potter.
Read about the butcher.

A very unhappy potter

 

Hoo! Hoo!

 
 

This is one of the oddest things I found: three (hieroglyph) owls on a large limestone stela. Unlike all of the other birds on the tablet, these three had discernable, and very individual faces. Who were these people? Were they the artisans who worked on the stela, or members of the family for whom it was made? Who? Hoo?

 

I'm With Stupid This is a near miss, and I only found that out tonight. When I saw these two in the gallery, I said -- Didn't we meet in New York? Or was it Toronto? -- thinking they were in Art In The Age Of The Pyramids. Well, after thumbing through both the English and French show catalogues, it looks as if I was mistaken. Still. They should have been in the show. Just look at her face.

I showed this picture to a friend who immediately captioned it: "I'm with stupid."


Finally, the sweetest thing I found: A limestone carving of a fishing scene. On the left, one fish hides in some plants, watching another fish, caught in a net, being hauled out of the water. Neither fish looks terribly happy. Fishing scene

This is quite a nice gallery, uncluttered with people. My only disappointment was that they did not have their copy of the Narmer Palette on display (they're undergoing renovations). You can't be a proper Egyptian gallery without a Narmer Palette, can you?

The Oriental Institute bookstore ("The Suq") has an impressive (and surprising) collection of books on Egyptology for sale. I picked up a couple of that I had been hunting for: James Hock's Middle Egyptian Grammar, and Dr. A. De Buck's Egyptian Readingbook. Both paperbacks are hard to score north of the border, which is ironic (actually "maddening" might be a better word) since Hock's book is published in Mississauga, an hour's drive from where I live.



Pharaohs Of The Sun

I hardly know what to say at this point. The show, made up of artifacts from Egypt, Germany, and the USA, was great. The pieces were well lit, well labeled, and for the most part, gorgeous. Is this not the best of all worlds where a person can see two extraordinary shows of Egyptian art in the same year?

Here are some thoughts about some of the pieces (photos nicked from the Art Institute's web site):

This is a rather nice picture of a bust of Nefertiti, and yet it doesn't even hold a candle to the real thing, which just stops you in your tracks. Apparently, it's not finished yet, but it's hard to imagine what would improve it (besides a headdress).

After seeing the show, I leafed through the catalog, and saw pictures of all the things I had just seen, but like this image here, none of them really captured the essence of the works. Either the subtlety of the textures had been lost, or the colours were less intense, or else the photographer had mysteriously avoided the obvious angle which would show off the details that you happened to like best.

At best, looking at pictures of art is like reading a translation of story.


Glass fish In the early 1970s, my grandmother bought a couple of brightly coloured coffee mugs with some sort of animal on them. They're classic 70's pop art.

This fish could be early 70's pop art. If you saw it in a carboard box at a garage sale, would you even look twice?

I love those coffee mugs, by the way, and I think this 2300-year-old fish is just as great. Next time you're at the British Museum in London, be sure drop by and say hi.


Akhenaten in yellow stone. Every time I see this statue, I think: Tutankhamun. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because most people can name only one Egyptian pharaoh.

As you might have guessed, this is a stunner. The surface is highly polished and almost glows in daylight. You can walk all around this piece, which is a good thing because then you get to see the arm at the King's back (you can see a piece of it in the picture at his right elbow.) Even that fragment is beautifully crafted, and like the feet beside Tutankhamun's colossal statue at the Oriental Institute, I was curious to know who it belonged to. And where that statue would have stood because the plinth is not obviously incomplete.

Akhenaten in yellow stone


I wish I had a picture of one of the less flashy pieces in the show: Prince Tutmose on a bier. If you have the Boston catalog of the show, it's object #15 on page 205. If you don't, I'll try to describe it: It's 10cm long, made of dark stone. A boy with shoulder length hair is lying on a lion-footed table. There is writing on the sides identifying it as the king's son Tutmose. The ends are decorated with Isis and her sister Nepthys. A ba bird is perched on his belly. He would have been the older brother of Amenhotep (Akhenaten). If he hadn't died, the whole Amarna period might not have happened. It's not a breathtaking piece, but I like the way it tells the story of a single, sad, human event amidst the posturing of the colossal works.


I have to tell you a book fanatic's story (it'll be quick). It's a bit of a walk between the entrance of the Art Institute and the hall where they had the show. Along the way, you pass through galleries of armour and silver and all sorts of distracting, shiny objects. In the middle of one hallway, in a large glass case, I saw a large desk made of dark wood with an equally large book lying open on it. I would have passed right by, but I noticed the picture in the book: It was a colour engraving of an Egyptian temple. I think my mouth may have actually dropped open when I realized that this was a volume from Description De L'Egypt. This is the book maven's book. Published between 1809 and 1826 as a result of Napoleon Bonapart's Egyptian campaign, this colossal work contains 14 volumes of engravings of Egyptian architecture and artifacts (and contemporary items), plus another 9 volumes of memoirs and commentary, and 2 volumnes of maps. I have a modest reprint of just the architectural drawings; they're wonderful, but here was the real thing, at full size (21" x 27")! And it was just sitting there, and nobody stopped to look but me.

What do you think -- Do books get lonely?

 



Museum Beverages

In the bakery lineup (at the Field Museum): A bearded, balding, corpulent man photographs the queue with his camcorder.

--Journal Entry, August 5, 2000

Museums are second only to airports for being bad places to eat when you're actually interested in eating. They're also neck and neck for being outrageously expensive. Let me give you an example. When I was at the Field Museum, I bought a sandwich, an apple, and a bottle of lemonade. Total price: $9.30 USD. That's about $13.40 Canadian. (For my international readers unfamiliar with Canadian currency and the cost of living here, that amount of money could feed a family of four for an entire day if they didn't order alcohol.)

To their credit, it wasn't bad as far as eat-it-and-beat-it food goes. The bread was at most a day old, and the lemonade, while not great -- it was your basic mass produced Snapple kind of product -- was serviceable. But obvious. It was as if they were afraid you wouldn't know it was lemonade unless it raised cankers in the first 30 seconds.

Contrast this to the ruinously expensive (2.60) glass of lemonade I had at the British Museum in London. You got less, but it was like drinking lemon water: not sweet, not sour, just real lemon. In water. Ambrosia, subtle ambrosia.

I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last fall, I'm not even sure they had any lemonade. Perhaps it's a seasonal thing there. And going back further, I have nothing but hostile memories of the cafeteria at the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, spring '97), but at that point in my life, I think I was still hesitant to spend money on perfectly good things that would make me feel better instantly. Nutty.

 


Related Links

The Field Museum Of Natural History
Adler Planetarium
Live view from the top of the Planetarium
Carl Zeiss Planetarium Projectors
Oriental Institute (University of Chicago)
Art Institute Of Chicago
Pharaohs Of The Sun Web Site
A survey of lemon varieties
General information about preparing lemons
General information on citrus fruit


Chicago Gallery

06 Apr 2002

Detail from the Chicago Board Of Trade Building


The Chicago Board Of Trade Building
Detail from the Chicago Board Of Trade Building.

It's Sunday morning.


This is just about the oddest faux-colonial facade I've ever seen. I think it is an El station. I wonder if was grafted from some now faceless building nearby.
Fire escape and gargoyle, near the Chicago Board Of Trade Building. There are fire escapes all over Chicago.


I found this beside a nasty pedestrian overpass near a train station, downtown.


The view from the street near the overpass.


If you look across the street, you'll find a lovely still moment on a hot and humid morning. This picture reminds me of why I take black and white pictures.


Later that afternoon, the humidity broke. Violently. I took this poor photo on an exposed wooded train platform (MetraTrain 55-56-57th street, I think), just after the sky abruptly turned green. There is no one else in sight, except for a man relieving himself in corner of the station. In moments, the wind will make noises you only hear on television, on shows about tornadoes. You know the sound -- you can make it yourself by cupping your hands and making a sort of whistling nose into them. It was like that. All around. It bent the trees and made the overhead electrical wires wave back and forth. And when it started to rain, I found out how old the wooden roof was, and how many holes the rot had bored.

Later on, I watched a power transformer throw showers of sparks before exploding with a very loud bag. This was more a curiosity than a concern because the lights on the platform had long since shorted out.


A not-particularly-pleasant panorama taken from the hotel lobby. The train
rattled by every 15 minutes or so like a well-loved child's toy. The tall black
building with the white spikes is the Sears Tower. I fear they have made a
grave aesthetic mistake by painting the antennas white; after Labour Day,
the building will be ridiculous.


This structure was built using a continuous extrusion process developed in Japan. Initially only 20 storeys high, additional floors were added from the basement as the demand for office space increased. Large amounts of concrete were pumped from reservoirs through a mold located just below street level, pushing the other floors up. Thus the ground floor became the second floor (or "first floor"); the second became the third, and so on. As a result, it has the distinction of being the only building in Chicago with four separate foyers, all on different floors. This is certainly a dubious distinction.

The "I Am Not A Seat Number" Tour Of England

06 Apr 2002

In March 1998, I went to England to visit my university chum Skippy and to see Juliette Binoche on the London stage in a play called "Naked." Other motives included a sampling of fine British curries and a road trip to Devon on the southwest coast. This is a transcript of my journal in which I make banal observations illustrated with breathtakingly bad photos.

(In an effort to conserve and protect the photographs contained on this web page, we periodically take them down for cleaning and restoration. They will be returned to the pages in the near future. In the meantime, please enjoy the full text version of the diary. -- The Editors, June 99)

Read the whole story...


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