Thursday, December 29, 2005

Field trip: A museum to museums

Perhaps it's proof that life is short but art is long. While every period piece hung at the Art Instutute appears timeless, Field Museum displays all seem to bear an invisible time stamp, they're such products of their time.

On a holiday visit, Underground Adventure had enough squirming giant ants to frighten small children, yet with all the stasis of Indian village dioramas. A video monitor tracked the bugs' simulated process, but with no game console attached. George Catlin's warrior chiefs at the Field never presented this problem, which is probably why the paintings could fetch $15 million last year at Southeby's.

The historical parallels, intended or not, were fascinating. I lingered at the Rove beetle, not a dung beetle but a predator that aimed for the soft underbelly. I had the same feeling I was seeing current events when at Philadelphia's Philosophical Hall I discovered a portrait of one of John Adams' Supreme Court nominees, George Washington's cousin Bushrod.

Led by the curator's invisible hand, we continued upstairs on our Field trip. Mummies made uncomfortable parallels between religion and social status, and hieroglypics bore a patron's message with the postmodern attitude of commercial art. (My nephew on break from art school kept his nose in a book throughout.) A factory-housing exhibit took residence next to the Maori meeting house, and an earthenware display ended with a 20th century turkey platter from Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

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