The Magazine

When Worlds Collide

The American past meets modern museum doctrine.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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The museum is full of noisy children and their caregivers, blended families, and whatever else we're calling kith and kin these days. A long, mouse-maze, airport security-style line must be endured to get tickets. The sculpture of a Masai spearman facing off against a crouching lioness has been shunted to a lonely corner, lest someone somehow take offense. Nowadays offense is taken--snatched and grabbed--as if offense were something valuable to own. And given our umbrage-filled presidential campaign, maybe it is. The brontosaurus has been pushed to the back (that is to say the front) of the main hall and isn't called a brontosaurus anymore. (Doubtless offense was taken by Chicago's Bronto-American community.) Nor is the skeleton of this vast vegan any longer engaged in post-mortem mortal combat with the bones of a tyrannosaurus rex. Modern kids are too loving and caring about dinosaurs to be exposed to such scenes of domestic violence.

Most of the minerals and all of the useful woods have been replaced by a gift shop the size of Macy's (appropriately enough, since Macy's is now the name on Marshall Field's, the department store whose founder was the Field Museum's patron). The cafeteria is gone; a McDonald's has been installed. At least people are still dressed the way I was a half-century ago: In jeans or shorts, T-shirts, and gym shoes. Except these are people of 40 or 50. Indeed, some are as old as my grandmother was when she, in hat and gloves, escorted me. And Grandma had visited the Field Museum during the Columbian Exposition.

I couldn't see what the children are wearing; they are misbehaving blurs to my bifocaled eyes. None seems afraid to walk past the mummy case. I didn't have the heart. Unwrapped as he is, the mummy fits in too well, sartorially, with a 21st-century crowd. At the portal of the "Ancient Americas" exhibit is the first of many, many wall inscriptions telling you what you should be thinking, if you happen to do any of that.

The Ancient Americas is a story of diversity and change--not progress.

Were this a criticism of pre-Columbian societies, you'd be in for an interesting experience. It isn't. You aren't.

Besides the wall inscriptions the exhibit is cluttered with innumerable video screens displaying people yakking in native languages described as nearly extinct. What information is conveyed thereby, and to whom, is an open question. An extensive collection of Inca clay faces appears opposite the "not progress" message. The Inca seem to have been skilled cartoonists in the Wallace and Gromit manner. However, claymation lacks something when it isn't animated. But that's not-progress for you.

"Gallery guides available in Spanish only," reads another wall inscription. This is either overdoing it with the multiculturalism or an implied insult to the effect that Hispanics are too stupid to find their way through an exhibit arranged like a drunkard's version of the museum's ticket line.

A very wordy inscription details the theories of when and how humans arrived in the New World. Translated from the academese: "We dunno." An encomium to the Ice Age hunter-gatherers follows. "People like us," it concludes, "prospered in ancient times." We did indeed--if your idea of prosperity is fastening a "Clovis people" spearpoint to a stick and stabbing long-horned bison, giant grand sloths, wooly mammoths, mastodons, and New World horses until they were all extinct. The economic boom didn't extend to casual wear and sports clothes. Ice Age or no, everyone in the talentlessly painted murals is naked. Nipples seem to have been vague and smudgy in ancient times, and a mastodon or giant ground sloth was always getting in between mural viewers and your genitals.

Under one such painting the inscription reads:

"Look at that mammoth," your aunt cries out as you hike downhill towards a vast plain. The men [sic!] did well .  .  . " Your family and other group members pause to give thanks and honor the mammoth whose life was taken .  .  .

The Americas were peopled, presciently, by future Californians.

"After the Ice Age," reads another wall, "human creativity made the Americas more culturally diverse." Barack Obama was elected, I guess. Nearby is a large mural titled "Eastern Woodlands 2500 B.C.-500 B.C." I'm a resident of the Eastern Woodlands and, except for fewer naked people, they haven't changed much. Perhaps the title should be amended to "Eastern Woodlands 2500 B.C.-500 B.C. and 1969 A.D. when Janis Joplin and Santana Were Performing at Woodstock."

The naked people in the Eastern Woodlands "faced growing population and environmental stresses. This led to periods of conflict with their neighbors."