Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: Restoring Earth

We tend to think of museums as places that display artifacts, sometimes on the walls, sometimes in cases, with descriptions of varying degrees of completeness on labels next to the objects. That is also true to a large extent of the Field Museum, although if you’ve read previous entries on the Museum, you know that’s not always the case. The Field Museum has well gone beyond being a repository of objects, however, as evidenced by the exhibition “Restoring Earth”.

Housed in the Abbot Hall of Conservation, the exhibition “Restoring Earth” describes in some detail the work of museum staff and consultants in preserving natural areas. As one enters, one is greeted by a set of wall panels laying out the process that Museum staff uses to determine what areas are candidates for preservation. To the right is a large area with seating and a three-panel video that goes into great detail of the Museum’s work in the field in the Andes-Amazon region of Peru. It starts with the advance team, whose task it is to get things ready: establishing camps and marking paths through the forest (because this is, in fact, forest — rain forest). Then the scientists arrive and the fun begins.

The video shows the biologists — botanists, mammologists, ichthyologists, herpetologists, ornithologists — at work on what’s called a “rapid inventory” — and it is rapid: three to five days spent each location cataloguing the range of species — plants and animals — to be found there. Then on to the next site.

In the meantime, the anthropology team is working with the inhabitants of the area, learning about the ways they use the resources of the environment. The video makes a very important point: the native peoples have historically engaged in low-impact use of these resources, and, as we learn, are very interested in keeping it that way.

Then, after a couple of weeks, the teams get together, pool their findings, prepare presentations for the inhabitants and the government with the aim of setting aside this area as “protected”.

The results of this field work are described in a discussion of the Cordillera Azul, Peru’s third largest national park, which started off as just this kind of project. As a side note, the scenes of the park in the wrap-around three-panel video are breathtaking.

Back to the wall: there is a map showing the areas studied between 1999 and 2018, and details of the various teams and how they work.

The next gallery has descriptions of the work done with various group in the Andes-Amazon region — the Maijuna, Shipibo and Cofan — in finding ways to maintain their way of the life and standard of living in the face of the increasing demands of a cash economy.

Next is a section on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary illustrating the diversity of molluscs, which leads into panels detailing projects on various islands — in this case, Madagascar and the Philippines. It’s an eye-opener in terms of evolution and how the isolation of islands kicks it into overdrive, and perhaps even more so in terms of the importance of getting local people involved.

The exhibition then moves into a more local focus, with panels discussing just what conservation is, and short videos showing the ways in which cooperation, community involvement, group efforts and even do-it-yourself projects can help restore degraded areas to a more natural state.

The final video describes some local preservation and restoration projects in the Chicago area, first showing the restoration of Grensberg-Markham Prairie. This was a wetland that was slated for development that never happened, even though the marsh had been drained. The video emphasizes the importance of restoring natural processes — in this case, periodic flooding and equally periodic fires — in restoring and maintaining a wilderness. The scene then moves to Ryerson Woods, a cooperative effort on the part of landowners along the Des Plaines River in Lake County, Illinois, that has created a strip of woodland several miles long.

There is a final section on the importance of extent — wild areas need to be big enough, or connected enough, for the needs of wildlife.

It’s a pretty absorbing exhibition, with a lot of information. Take your time with it and you’ll be amply rewarded.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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