Wednesday, April 10, 2024

A thing happened at a place, maybe.

                        "Yet why not say what happened?"  
                                              — Robert Lowell

     The tiniest detail can reveal something bad. A strangely-shaped freckle . The crack in the foundation, spreading.
     A small story popped up at the end of last week and was forgotten. The Museum of Science and Industry abruptly closed last Wednesday afternoon, sending visitors home "as staff moves military artifacts from archival storage" to allow a bit of "unplanned maintenance."
     "Out of an abundance of caution, and to ensure proper and safe removal, we have specially trained military personnel as well as local officials on-site," the museum statement read.
     What does that mean? "Military artifacts?" They aren't talking about old uniforms and mess kits. That has to be ... what? Hand grenades? Unexploded shells? What else requires "specially trained military personnel" to handle? You don't bring in the Army to remove a canteen.
     I waited for updates. Nothing.
     Fine. I'm a reporter, I'll do it. I phoned and emailed Museum of Science and Industry spokesperson Kelsey Ryan.
     Hours passed. I called its current president, Chevy Humphrey. When she arrived in 2021, the newspaper sent me to greet her with the big hurrah-for-Dr.-Humphrey profile. She had no trouble talking, then, about the new “Marvel: Universe of Super-Heroes” exhibit. Surely she'd explain what happened now.
     "Chevy doesn't take phone calls" said the MSI receptionist. I waved the Sun-Times like a paper flag and she put me through to her voicemail. Nothing.
     Okay, work the other side of the story, the "special trained military personnel" and "local officials." Who could that be? I called with the U.S. Army. It wasn't them. I put in the ritual calls to the Chicago police and fire departments — crickets chirping in a field. I texted Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois Secretary of State. His office has its own bomb squad.
     Giannoulias is old school, in that he still believes in an open democracy where information is freely shared. He got back immediately, reminding me that the world where we're heading — a world where major Chicago institutions abruptly eject visitors and shut their doors, calling in unspecified military units to cope with unnamed threats — is also a world where libraries that dare feature books about a penguin with two dads receive bomb threats. Twenty-two in Illinois last summer alone. He described HB 4567, passed out of house committee last Thursday, to better protect libraries against being silenced by people who, like the MSI, are allergic to the unfettered flow of information.
     “Our librarians and libraries have faced an onslaught of threats of violence and ideological intimidation for simply serving their communities,” said Giannoulias, who also serves as State Librarian. “We have seen an escalation of violence seeking to censor and restrict information."
     His office pointed me toward the U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Group.

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  1. Paranoia is a bad look for the museum, even if it's a reaction to the rising fascist state in our country.

  2. That does seem ridiculous on the part of the Museum staff.

  3. I remember being on the other side of a somewhat similar situation. In 1963, I was assigned to a San Diego Naval base, on which I was the quartermaster of an enlisted men's barracks. The the nuclear powered submarine USS Thresher was in the news as probably lost at sea. The pay phone at the barracks rang and a reporter from the San Diego Union (I think) asked for my opinion on the matter. Since I had no knowledge of any kind about it (which ordinarily might not have stopped me from commenting) and I was fearful of getting into trouble in my last few months in the Navy, I told the reporter that I had nothing to say and hung up on him. At the time, I assumed the reporter was hoping for something subversive of critical; the San Diego papers were pretty rightwing then.

    As to the Museum, I suppose one of the honchos or an attorney, will come out with another maddening statement talking around the issue until they finally spill the beans as to what they feared was there.


  4. What eventually became the MSI first opened in 1933, as the Rosenwald Museum, during the World's Fair. My parents called it that all their lives. Went there countless times, as a child and as an adult. Alone and with companions.

    Last visit to the MSI was in 2011. Both my wife and I were very turned off, and even alienated. Too many bells and whistles. Too many MSI icons altered or replaced. Too little science, too much industry. And way too corporate. The thrill was gone.

    Yeah, it's great that U-505 and the Zephyr were saved from further deterioration. Still love the trains, and the WWII planes hanging overhead. But the walk-through heart is gone, and what was once Main Street is now a lounge for members only. It's not my father's MSI anymore, and it's not mine, either.

    Too many changes at MSI, and not for the better. And this latest debacle is autocratic, tactless, and unsurprising. I don't care if I ever get back.

  5. I will venture a guess that the reason for the silence from the museum is embarrassment. They sent visitors home and closed the doors for what turned out to be a big fat nothing. Surely any potentially explosive munition was cleared by the military before it was added to the museum's collection. Frankly they should be more embarrassed by the failure of transparency.

    1. It reminds me of Garrison Keillor's line about falling in the shower: It's not the fall that hurts you, it's what you do trying not to fall.

  6. Halfway through the column, I was getting ready to ask if you spell it out plainly in a case like this -- "Look, I'm writing a column about this either way; you get to decide how you're gonna look," but then I saw that, of course, you did pretty much do that.

    As with the other "dangerous details" you refer to in the opening sentence, quite often what one is left to imagine is worse than the actual situation being considered. Unless this incident involved some kind of nuclear material that they had lying around in an exhibit, or something, this would appear to be such a case.

    With all the professional communications folks so many places have these days, it's pretty surprising that they're not better at communicating. That was a pretty odd story last week that prompted your inquiry. You'd think they'd have realized there might be some curiosity about it, and come up with a better way to deal with it than this.

  7. In the final minutes of Raiders of The Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant was being stored in an unknown location…hmmmm, perhaps the Museum is that storage place

    1. No, the Ark went into a giant government warehouse with thousands of those big wooden crates they put it in. I've been in a similar private warehouse, they actually used those giant tall wooden crates to store everything.
      The US Government has warehouses for everything. They made so many Purple Hearts, expecting the invasion of Japan would be so costly in human lives, they still are awarding the military who earn one, Purple Hearts made in 1945. I remember a 60 Minutes piece from decades ago about one warehouse in Pennsylvania that had hundreds of thousands of bathrobes made for the VA stored there, but the VA was still buying new ones, because they forgot about the stored ones!
      The Smithsonian has a warehouse in Suitland Maryland where they store stuff they can't put on display, like paintings by Hitler seized by American troops when they took over western Germany. Occasionally they show them to a tv news show. The paintings look like the landscape crap they used to sell at those weekend "Starving Artists" sales at suburban motels several years ago.

  8. A missed opportunity for the museum to expand awareness of their existence and possibilities for future visitors. I’m wondering if they need to add people to their Board to help with their PR/Media presence?

  9. During my two cruises aboard the USS Midway, we would have occasional nuke loading drills. The unofficial story was the weapons involved were sometimes dummies and sometimes genuine. The actual process was so secret that personnel not involved in the drill were forbidden to enter areas where the bomb(s) could be viewed. I happened to see one through a hatch on the hangar deck, it was big and looked very real. And guarded by Marines with M-16's, despite our being out to sea. The Navy took things seriously. Perhaps MSI was just being cautious, assuming a gun was loaded until proven safe, so to speak. Perhaps I'm more willing to accept the explanations because I know the damage that comes with that odd shaped freckle.

  10. Well. This story is not over. I look forward to hearing what the MSI does next, as chronicled by the esteemed NS.


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