"This is the flesh-eating beetle room," said John O'Connell, pushing open a brown door labeled "Dermestid Beetle Colony."
We were on a quick behind-the-scenes tour at the Field Museum last Saturday, the start of a whirlwind week that would include talking with a Marine priest in Japan, watching President Obama exit Air Force One at O'Hare, and driving nearly 600 miles to visit with the good folk of Wayne County.
Those last three experiences were for the newspaper. But I didn't want to let our extra-curricular jog through the upper reaches of the Field vanish into oblivion without setting a little down here because really, how many people get to do that?
The average culture hound likes to hit hot museum exhibits early, so as to be among the avant-garde. I'm the opposite; I tend to put off visiting until at the last possible moment, pressed by time, prodded into action only because they're about to vanish forever. That was the case with the terra cotta warriors. My older son had seen the excavation site in China, my wife was eager to go, and I mentioned this to O'Connell, a major gifts officer at the Field, whom I had met at a party at the Tattoo show the day the Cubs won the World Series. We were slipping in just before the show closed, and he asked if I'd like to see the extensive and fascinating off-limits area of the museum. I did.
The dermestid beetles are used to turn animal carcasses into skeletons to be kept for research and display. No photos are permitted within, and just as well, because it's grisly business. We entered through a pair of doors, which I thought at first was to control the smell of decay—not bad really, compared to the morgue—but actually done to keep the beetles from escaping into the museum. "If these get loose, it's Goodbye dioramas!" he said.
O'Connell estimated there are 30 million objects in the Field collection. "Shelves and shelves and shelves," he said. "More shelves. It just goes on and on. It's a pretty incredible place." I enjoyed noting the titles on the door. The Field has a resident artist, painting watercolors of birds for exhibits. We'll have to meet over the long winter.
He didn't have access to the drawers of preserved birds—I'll return to see those too—but I got to ogle some specimens of the Field's wet collection: jars of squid and and fish and crabs. The lengths of corridors went on and on, and we raced through (time was short because we had to get up to Evanston to rendezvous with our younger son) I felt convinced that I could be designated the Field Museum reporter and spend the rest of my career happily going from door to door, writing columns. How readers might react to that is another matter. I doubt they wake up thinking, "I wish I knew more about brachiopods."
Great age has a way of adding an aura of preciousness to the most mundane object. A kernel of corn is garbage to be swept away on your kitchen floor. But a kernel of corn on the floor of an Egyptian tomb is science and history. I am not a particular fan of ladies' straw hats. But when O'Connell opened a draw of hats left from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, I marveled at their preservation and thought of the kind of dutiful stewardship that tended them, like relics, for the past 124 years. It made me think of ISIS blowing up monuments from antiquity, a cultural barbarity in keeping with their human barbarity, and prompted a thought I've never had before: Chicago has never been bombed. The Civil War never drew near. The cataclysms of the 20th century were oceans away. One disastrous fire in 1871, and then unbroken peace and safety, at least safety from outside harm. God knows we generate our own harm from within. Still, compared to a city like London or Berlin or Tokyo, much to be thankful for. Which is quite the weighty message to be carried by a fragile, century-old straw hat, but certainly one worth going out of your way on a Saturday to receive.