photo: courtesy of the Museum of Science & Industry
Sending a 15-year-old boy to explore a war submarine is like sending an alcoholic into Sam's Wine and Spirits, but that's just what my ninth grade history teacher did. At the time, I lived outside Detroit and I was headed to Chicago for vacation.
Instead of having to make up a week of homework, my teacher assigned a report on the U505 submarine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. I knew I got away with something, and it's why I always have a soft spot in my heart for the museum. But as I'm no longer a kid and no longer a vacationer, would the museum's thrill live on? I set out to see.
The line for tickets on a Tuesday morning in the middle of July looked like the bathroom queues at Lollapalooza. There's a $1 dollar discount for city residents if you buy tickets at the museum, but it isn't worth the wait. Buy your tickets ahead of time online. I may be biased, but the extra $5 for the docent led U-505 tour (with a detailed look at the sub interior) is definitely worth the upgrade.
True fact number one: The museum hosts more school groups than any other Chicago cultural attraction. I was amused by a rambunctious group of elementary school kids continually pummeling each other, but if you're afraid of children gone wild, you might want to plan your trip during the early fall when school is just getting under way.
After taking a stairway-to-heaven-like escalator up to the main artery of the museum, I headed to the Yesterday's Main Street exhibit. The exhibit, life-size dioramas of famous Chicago storefronts, is pretty poignant since it includes depictions of the historic Marshall Field and Co. and the now defunct Berghoff.
Appropriately saturated with local history, I moved next door to the Transportation Zone. There's something visceral about listening to the plodding of pistons and the gnash of gears, an audible fantasia of progress that built this country, and there's no better place to get a full on dose of motor mania than the Zone. A United Airlines 727 hull is cantilevered like a Frank Lloyd Wright balcony over the entire hall. It looked so precarious, I worried it might fall.
Across from the Transportation Zone is the rotating exhibits hall, which currently houses the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit. The exhibit starts out with a short movie, shot in cheesy History Channel dramatization style. It's standard stuff about da Vinci's notebooks, inventions and the Mona Lisa. It turns out Leonardo was a bastard child, and didn't know his father's last name. Da Vinci, literally means "from Vinci" the city in which he was born.
The exhibit itself was an exploration of a man ahead of his time. Da Vinci invented robots, the tank, submarines, artificial heart valves and scuba gear. There are more than 60 small-scale models constructed from his sketches, and an interactive component where you can launch cannonballs with a full-scale catapult. One of Leonardo's actual sketches from 1506 is on display. Five hundred years have barely faded the pencil lines.
After a nod to the Renaissance master, it was time to recapture my youth and visit the U505. When I saw the boat 15 years ago it was falling apart, but now the gray painted hull had been restored to the luster it had the day it left the Atlantic. With five interactive exhibits, including the Enigma code-breaking machine, a dive trainer and hundreds of artifacts like the original periscopes and old packs of cigarettes, the exhibit is the most detailed and intricate submarine exploration since Wolfgang Peterson's five-hour uncut version of Das Boot.
While pondering the food manifest of the U505 (more than 12 tons of food were loaded on a typical mission, including 108 pounds of chocolate), I realized I was hungry. I headed over to the Brain Food court. The wood-fired pizzas and salads looked decent, and if you're staying for a whole day, it's not a bad idea, though the selections are a bit pricey. I was exhausted, and had seen quite a bit, so I left and closed out my day with a garbage pizza from nearby Medici Bakery.
Guidebook rating: While some of the older scientific exhibits have a '70s vibe, the detailed transportation exhibits like the U-505, Boeing 727 and Apollo space capsules are extraordinary...and make this a worthwhile visit, though once is probably enough, as it's easy to exhaust after one trip.
Stats: Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $6.25-$11, plus an extra fee for special exhibits; check the site for the smattering of free days. Freeloaders should note that you can tour the gleaming Pioneer Zephyr, a Chicago Burlington and Quincy passenger train that broke the record for the longest non-stop run at the fastest average speed from Denver to Chicago in 1934, without purchasing a ticket.
Parking is $12; on a weekday, if you don't mind walking a block or two, it's not too hard to find a street spot if you want to save a little cash.
Untrapping Tourism is a monthly feature that pits Centerstage's native and nearly native writers against the city's most stereotypical tourist traps.