Along with the Science and Industry Museum and the Field Museum of Natural History, the Art Institute of Chicago is probably among Chicago’s top 3 museums. Additionally, it probably ranks among the best art museums in the United States. Fortunately, for Illinois residents, the Museum is participating in Illinois’ free museum days. That means that admission for Illinois residents will be free there until March 4th. However, throughout the entire year, the Museum also has a free evening each week for Illinois residents. Although the free evening has not always been the same day of the week, currently, it is on Wednesdays from 5:00 to 8:00 P.M.
The Art Institute of Chicago originally began as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in 1879, which provided both art education and art displays. When Chicago won the bid to host the 1893 World’s Fair, known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, it decided to build the current structure of the Art Institute of Chicago, in order to impress visitors. Ever since then, the Museum’s collection and reputation has continued to grow, as has its affiliated university, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
The Art Institute of Chicago’s strongest collections are from Europe and the United States. For example, the Art Institute of Chicago probably has the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings (such as Monet and Van Gogh) outside of France. Despite the majority of the art being from Europe or the United States (including some Native American art), there are some sections specifically focused on East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Additionally, there is an even smaller section with archaeology. These are all on the main floor.
If you visit the Art Institute of Chicago, you must visit the Thorne Miniature Rooms. They are made up of 68 dollhouse-like rooms, each with extensive details of homes from different time periods. A wealthy woman named Narcissa Thorne designed them between 1937-1940, and donated them to the Museum. This collection is located in the basement of the Museum, so is often overlooked by visitors. It is also worth visiting the Arms and Armor room on the second floor.
Grant Wood’s famous painting, “American Gothic” can be found at the Art Institute of Chicago on the second floor. You can also visit the painting used in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is based on the 1891 novel of the same name, by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. I will not provide further information about it, because it is worth reading and watching.
In 2009, the Art Institute of Chicago added a Modern Wing, which houses most of the contemporary art. My favorite art piece there is “White Crucifixion,” which was painted by the French-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall, in 1938. What I especially find fascinating about it is that it was painted in 1938, right before the outbreak of WWII and the Holocaust. The painting depicts Jesus in the center, with a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) as a loincloth, thus emphasizing his Jewishness. Surrounding him are difference scenes of Jewish persecution in Europe. One way to interpret this painting is that Chagall was reminding people that, if they are persecuting Jews, it is like persecuting Jesus, who was himself Jewish.
If you like art, and are in Chicago, then the Art Institute of Chicago is worth the visit.
*When I first posted this article, I unintentionally wrote down the age of Theodore Badal’s age at his death incorrectly. It has now been corrected.
Prior to a few decades ago, researching beyond the public library to learn about a random topic of interest would have been too much of an effort to be worthwhile. Thankfully, technology continues to make it easier and easier to research almost anything. As an example, I will demonstrate how I was able to satisfy my curiosity about the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, William Saroyan, by using tools that were not available until recently.
I first became interested in William Saroyan when I read the introduction to Sargon Donabed’s book, Reforging a Forgotten History: Iraq and the Assyrians in the Twentieth Century, which quotes a section of Saroyan’s short story “Seventy Thousand Assyrians.” Most people do not know about modern Assyrians, so the fact that someone wrote a short story about them in 1934 piqued my interest. I had never heard of Saroyan before, so I went to:
Although Wikipedia is not viewed as an authoritative source, it is a great place to start learning about a topic. In many ways, it is better than a print encyclopedia, because it gets updated more frequently. Its bibliography also provides links to other resources on a topic.
From Wikipedia, I learned that Saroyan was an Armenian-American writer, which explained why he knew about Assyrians. Armenians and Assyrians are both Christian minorities found in the Middle East, so they often befriend, or even marry, each other. It also explained why his surname ended in “yan.” Most Armenian surnames end in “ian” or “yan,” because it essentially means “son of.”
The gist of the story is that the anonymous, Armenian narrator goes to get a haircut in San Francisco. While getting a haircut, the narrator asks his Middle Eastern-looking barber, Theodore Badal, if he is Armenian. The barber says no, he is Assyrian. The story then proceeds with the narrator and Badal comparing their cultures. What specifically captured my attention was Badal’s gloomy monologue:
“We were a great people once,” he went on. “But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. They’re still admiring it. Now I am in America learning how to cut hair. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it. The news comes over to us through the Associated Press, anyway.” — [This story appeared in Saroyan’s first book of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories, published by Random House in 1934.]
What is significant about Badal’s statements is:
Everything that he said could easily be said by an Assyrian today.
Assyrians still lament the dying of their culture.
Many Assyrian refugees in the United States are still barbers.
Assyrians still do not have well-known writers.
Assyrians are still facing persecution (e.g. ISIS).
In 1933, a large percentage of Assyrians were massacred during the Simele massacre in Iraq, which is perhaps what this 1934 short story is alluding to.
Because the story felt so authentic, like the retelling of an actual event, I decided to search for Theodore Badal.
Family Search is a free genealogy website, which is specifically useful for researching public U.S. records. To use it, all you have to do is create an account. It is similar to Ancestry.com, but the latter is not free and provides you with access to more records. The Mormons, or Church of Latter-Day Saints, founded both of these genealogy resources, because, according to their theology, a person can be posthumously baptized. For example, if you have a deceased ancestor who was never baptized, he or she cannot enter heaven, so if you posthumously baptize that ancestor, then when the resurrection comes, he or she can accept this baptism and be saved. Therefore, thanks to Mormon theology, the U.S. has wonderful genealogy resources.
On Family Search, I found a 1930 U.S. census record from San Francisco of a man named Theodore Badal, who was born in New York and whose father was born in Persia (present-day Iran) and spoke Assyrian (neo-Aramaic). The Theodore Badal in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians” said that he was living in New York prior to San Francisco, although he also said that he was born in “the old country,” not New York. However, the parallels were still too similar to ignore. In the story, the narrator calls both himself and Badal young men. In 1934, Saroyan would have been around 26 years-old. The Badal that I found on Family Search would have been 22, according to the birthdate on his WWII draft registration card from 1940. Badal’s draft card also said that he was 5 feet 10 inches. According to Saroyan’s story, the barber was tall. Although 5 feet 10 inches is not necessarily that tall, it would have been tall for Saroyan, who was 5 feet 8 inches (according to his 1981 obituary in The Washington Post).
My obsession with this topic grew, so I proceeded to try another research tool.
Research Tool #3: Request Vital Records from the County Clerk
Vital records are birth, marriage, and death records. If you know the date and location of a person’s birth, marriage, or death, you can contact the County Clerk’s office where the event occurred and request the vital record. Nowadays, you can just go to the county clerk’s website, print and fill out a request form, and then mail it, as well as a check, to the County Clerk’s office. If you are not related to the person, you can request a genealogy copy, as long as the event occurred a long enough time ago.
I do not know why I felt compelled to request a genealogy copy of Theodore Badal’s 1946 death record, but I did. From it, I learned the following:
Badal’s parents were born in Iran
Badal married and divorced a non-Assyrian woman 4 years his senior.
Badal did not serve in WWII.
Badal’s occupation was “musician.”
Badal died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.
Perhaps this Theodore Badal was not the same as Saroyan’s Badal, but they definitely had lot of similarities.
Most public and academic libraries in the United States pay to have their catalogs available on WorldCat. This amazing website allows you to search and see which libraries in your area have a certain book, magazine, DVD, etc. After finding the item that you want, all you have to do is type in your zip code, and the closest libraries with that item will appear first on the list. Although most of the libraries in WorldCat are located in the United States, many large libraries in other countries also use it.
After finding the book on WorldCat, I requested it through my public library’s inter-library loan system. It, as well as other stories in it, referenced Assyrians.
Next, I decided to watch the 1943 film, The Human Comedy, for which Saroyan won an Academy Award for Best Story (the predecessor of the Best Screenplay award).
A largely autobiographical story, the film includes a scene in which the protagonist’s classmate has to read about the ancient Assyrians in class. According to the class’ textbook, the Assyrians were “long of nose, hair and beard.” When the teacher scolds the protagonist, Homer, for disrupting the class, and asks him to summarize what they had learned, Homer provides a funny monologue about the different uses of the nose, for he says that if the textbook mentioned noses, then it must be important.
The movie’s reference to Assyrians as people with “long” noses could be seen as offensive. However, since in “Seventy Thousand Assyrians,” Saroyan specifically mentioned how both Armenians and Assyrians tend to have large noses, I wondered if Saroyan was trying to poke fun at an actual textbook, and point out how out of place the comment was. After doing some Google searching, I came across another research tool that I want to highlight.
Since 1996, the Internet Archive, headquartered in San Francisco, has been digitizing and uploading millions of books and other resources, especially those that are no longer under copyright. People can digitize and upload content themselves, or send items to the Internet Archive to do it for them (for a fee).
After reading this snippet about the Assyrians in Wells’ textbook, I felt thankful that at least Saroyan did not also borrow Wells’ snide about Jews. However, this, of course led me to further investigating. Unfortunately, Wells negatively portrayed Jews in his other writings as well (such as in The Invisible Man). However, Saroyan, did not come off as guiltless of antisemitism.
Google has attempted to digitize every book that there is. It did encounter copyright lawsuits, which put the project on a standstill for a while. Right now, the books that they have already digitized, but are still under copyright, only have a select number of pages visible to read. Even if you cannot read the entire book, it is a great way to get an idea of what a book is about, and see if it is something you need for your research.
From the pages publicly available in Google Books ofSaroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, I learned that Saroyan’s son, Aram, claimed that one of the reasons why his father divorced his mother was because he learned, 6 years after their marriage, that his wife was Jewish. However, based on the biography, I doubt that this was the only reason.
For anyone who braved through this entire post, I hope that you not only learned more research tips, but also enjoyed learning more about Assyrians and William Saroyan, who was famous during his lifetime, but has sadly been forgotten.
Sources and Further Reading
Lee, Lawrence and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row (1984).
During the month of February, one of Chicago’s best museums, the Field Museum of Natural History, is free to Illinois residents. It ranks among the best natural history museums in the United States, along with New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
After the World’s Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Marshall Field, a Chicago businessman, helped create the museum. Originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, it soon took on the name of its chief benefactor. The Field Museum not only began as a museum showcasing artifacts from the Chicago World’s Fair, but was also located in one of the few structures remaining from the Fair, the Palace of Fine Arts Building in Jackson Park. However, as the Museum grew, it eventually moved into a newer building further north, in an area now called the Museum Campus.
Through a personal connection, I recently had the opportunity to visit part of the Field Museum’s archives, which are not open to the public. I say “part,” because my visit made me realize how vast its archives are. My connection does research on insects, so he only showed me the lab where they do their research, as well as the archives where they store thousands of specimens of different types of insects and arachnids. If this large archival space only contains insect specimens, then I can only imagine what archives the mammals, fish, birds, minerals, mummies, etc., must each have as well.
A large portion of the Field Museum displays mammals, plants, and other creatures that have been preserved and stuffed. This includes the Tsavo Lions, which were two lions in Kenya that killed between 35 to 135 people (a huge gap in estimates) in 1898. The British colonel (John Henry Patterson) who shot them, eventually sold them to the Field Museum. Apparently, Hollywood has made several movies about the two lions. Another lion, which ate six people in Zambia in 1991, is also on display at the Field Museum.
In addition to the animals, the Field Museum also displays meteors, gems, and rocks. One section of the Museum also describes Native American life in the United States. Perhaps the most popular display is the dinosaur bones and fossils, including a new one from Argentina called Maximo the Titanosaur. However, my favorite display at the Field Museum is called “Inside Ancient Egypt,” and contains 23 human mummies, as well as animal mummies. The exhibit is designed to appear as if you are entering a pyramid, which makes the experience more exciting.
For more information about Chicago museums affiliated with the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, see what I previously wrote below.
In United States history, a person became a member of the “Underground Railroad” if he or she assisted slaves from the Southern states to escape to free areas where slavery was illegal (often the Northern states or Canada). Nobody had to formally join an organization called the Underground Railroad to become a member. The phrase was more of an allegorical term for the many people who assisted runaway slaves until 1863. Members of the Underground Railroad did not solely consist of white abolitionists, but also included former slaves. For example, the most famous “conductor” of the Underground Railroad was runaway slave Harriet Tubman, who in ten years, repeatedly returned South to help bring approximately 300 slaves to freedom. (The new 2019 film Harriet is about this, and is worth watching.)
In 1998, the United States National Park Service began the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, which requires them to identify and preserve sites throughout the United States that were involved in the Underground Railroad. However, since participation in the Underground Railroad was a clandestine activity, it is not easy to find documentation of who was involved. This was especially the case after the Fugitive Slave Acts were passed in 1793, and then further enforced in 1850. These laws punished those who assisted runaway slaves, and allowed Southerners to search for and recapture their runaway slaves in the free North.
Ohio and Maryland currently tie for the most sites: 83. Next comes New York with 66, Pennsylvania with 54, and Virginia with 41. Illinois ranks at number 9 with 24 sites. I have visited two Illinois sites so far, the Sheldon Peck Homestead and Wheaton College. Both are in the western suburbs of Chicago in Du Page County, which also has a few other sites.
Sheldon Peck was a farmer and folk artist. He built his home in rural Lombard, Illinois in 1839, and eventually opened up his home to be used as the first school in the area. He was also a radical abolitionist (meaning that he wanted the immediate rather than gradual cessation of slavery) and worked as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. The evidence of his involvement comes from his son’s oral testimony and diary. Historians currently believe that the runaway slaves hid in his barn, which no longer stands, and not in his home, which does still stand. This home is currently owned by the Lombard Historical Society. It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1-4 and Saturdays from 10-2 (however, it is closed in December and January). Admission is free.
Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois was founded by Wesleyan Methodist abolitionists in 1860. Its first president was a staunch abolitionist named Jonathan Blanchard, who was also the College’s first president. According to a sign about Wheaton College’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, located in the campus’ oldest building, Blanchard Hall, Wheaton became the first college in Illinois to graduate African Americans. Blanchard Hall was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is one of the only surviving buildings from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was in Jackson Park, in the South Side of Chicago. Like most of the other buildings at the World’s Fair, it was built in the Beaux Arts (Greek Revival style) architectural style. Unlike many of the other buildings built for the Fair, it had a more solid structure, which is why it still stands today. Originally called the Palace of Fine Arts, and bordering a lagoon that no longer exists, the building, as its original name implies, displayed art. Original photos of the Palace of Fine Arts building can be found here: https://chicagology.com/columbiaexpo/fair039/
A year after the 1893 World’s Fair, the building became the Columbian Museum of Chicago, and then the Field Columbian Museum, named after Marshal Field, one of the Museum’s benefactors. The Museum began as a place to house items from the Chicago World’s Fair (now mostly housed in its archives). However, as the museum grew, it eventually moved to a new location in 1921.
The Palace of Fine Arts building / former Field Museum then fell into disrepair. However, a wealthy businessman named Julius Rosenwald, who co-owned Sears, Roebuck and Company, eventually purchased and restored the building. He wanted Chicago to have a museum dedicated to science, just like the Deutsches Museum in Munich. This became Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Its opening, in 1933, corresponded with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, called “A Century of Progress.” Several items from the 1933 World’s Fair actually made their way into the Museum of Science and Industry afterwards, such as Dr. Helen Button’s “Formation of the Human Embryo” exhibit, which contains real fetuses, and shows how they develop in the womb.
Today, entry into the Museum is a little over $20 for adults, and a little over $10 for children. However, during the winter months, the Museum usually has free days for Illinois residents. Here is the list of free days for 2020: https://www.chicagoparent.com/learn/museums/free-museum-days-chicago/ I do not think that the free days apply for entry into their special exhibits, though.
The Museum of Science and Industry often has temporary exhibits. However, this massive building also contains many permanent exhibits. These include an exhibit called “Yesterday’s Main Street,” which recreates what an American town would have looked like in the early 20th century. Another exhibit includes vehicles and equipment used during different space explorations. You can also go inside older transportation vehicles, see baby chicks hatch, watch a giant model train set, see a circus exhibit, and peek into a beautiful fairy castle dollhouse (highly recommended). Other permanent exhibits require an additional entrance fee. These include a tour of a captured U-505 German submarine from World War II and a tour of a recreated coal mine. Finally, visitors can also purchase tickets to watch a film in the Museum’s 5-story domed-theater. The film options frequently change, but are always related to science (e.g. tornadoes or climbing Mount Everest).
If you visit during the Christmas season, you can see an annual exhibit called “Christmas Around the World.” This exhibit is made up of over 50 Christmas trees near the Museum’s entrance. Each tree is decorated by local volunteers and represents a different country or ethnic group. The annual tradition began in 1942 during World War II. Originally, there was only one tree which was decorated differently for twelve days, with each day representing a different allied country fighting alongside the United States.
There are other exhibits in the Museum of Science and Industry that I did not even mention. It is a huge and beautiful museum that is definitely worth visiting.
P. S. There is another building from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that still exists, but it is no longer in Chicago. This is the Norway Building, which was a building Norway built and sent for the 1893 World’s Fair. It moved several times, and was a part of a Norwegian historical village/museum in Wisconsin, called Little Norway, from 1935-2012. The grandson of one of its builders brought it back to Norway in 2017. The remainder of the buildings from the World’s Fair either burned down or were demolished.
The coldest months of the year in Chicago, January and February, are also when Chicago’s museums have the lowest number of visitors. Because of this, Chicago’s most famous museums usually have a large number of free admission days for Illinois residents.
Here is the list of free days offered at Chicago museums in 2020:
Two of the top three museums in Chicago (in my opinion), which generally have pricey admission, are offering generous free day options for Illinois residents in February. These museums are the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry. The Art Institute of Chicago is not actually offering free days in February, although Wednesdays from 5-8 PM are always free to Illinois residents throughout the entire year.
Coincidentally, I realized that all three museums have a connection with the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World Fair of 1893 was supposed to commemorate 400 years since Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Western Hemisphere in 1492 (preparation for the Fair delayed it to 1893 instead of 1892). There had been many World Fairs prior to 1893, and many more to follow, although Chicago’s probably ranks as one of the more famous ones. People from all over the world came for Chicago’s World Fair.
I will discuss each of the three museums in separate posts, but here is a brief summary of how each museum was connected to the 1893 World Fair. The Museum of Science and Industry was one of the many Classical-style buildings built for the World Fair. However, it is the only one that still survives. The Field Museum started out as a museum that housed artifacts from the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Finally, the Art Institute of Chicago was built in 1893 because of the World Fair, although it was not directly part of the Fair.
Most of Chicago’s 1893 World Fair took place in the South Side of Chicago, specifically in the Jackson Park area. Today, the area has an abandoned and eerie feel to it, although the future Barack Obama Presidential Center is supposed to be built there soon. Significant legacies from the Fair include the introduction of the Cracker Jack snack, the zipper, and Wrigley’s chewing gum. Additionally, the first Ferris wheel was built for Chicago’s World Fair as a rival to Paris’ 1889 World Fair, which introduced the Eiffel Tower. The original Ferris wheel was demolished soon after the Fair, but Navy Pier in Chicago now has a Ferris wheel to commemorate the first one.
If you want to learn more about the 1893 World Fair, I recommend the following two resources. The first is the book, The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson. It juxtaposes the story of the construction of the World Fair (nicknamed the “White City” because of its massive white buildings) with the story of H. H. Holmes (the devil). During the Chicago World Fair, Holmes went about murdering people, and is known as the first serial killer in the United States. A second resource is the film The Current War (released in 2019), which portrays the electric current race that occurred between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and less directly, Nikola Tesla, and their competition to illuminate the 1893 World Fair.
As a bonus, I want to mention that Chicago also hosted another World Fair in 1933 and 1934, known as the Century of Progress Exposition. It helped boost morale and bring new job opportunities during the Great Depression. This Fair was held a little further north, on Chicago’s Museum Campus area, where the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Soldier Field, and the Shedd Aquarium are located. The theme of the 1933 World Fair was to promote industrial progress and commemorate Chicago’s 100th birthday, since it was incorporated in 1833. Unlike the 1893 World Fair, the second World Fair’s architecture was more modern and included a lot of Art Deco style. Unfortunately, none of this Fair’s buildings still remain.
I found two flagpoles from the 1933 Chicago World Fair at two Chicago suburb schools. I wonder if they were originally a part of that Fair’s “Avenue of Flags” walkway.
Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World’s Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. New York: Bounty Books, 1894.
Buel, James W. The Magic City. New York: Arno Press, 1974.
Ganz, Cheryl R. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2002.