Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: The Labs

As you wander around the upper level gallery at the Field Museum, you will run across several large glass-fronted rooms in which people are doing mysterious things. These are several of the laboratories where technicians are working, and you can watch.

Starting with familiar territory, outside the Evolving Planet exhibition is the McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Laboratory (one of three fossil preparation labs), with several workstations (five, at last count), including one in a separate room. Here you can watch preparators separating fossils from the matrix in which they are embedded. There are small signs posted in the windows that tell you what the preparators are working on, where it was found, and how old it is, and what tools they are using. (The preparator in the separate room is working on fossils of ancient sturgeon and paddlefish in a mudstone matrix; mudstone is very fragile, crumbles easily, and needless to say, fish fossils are pretty delicate themselves.) There is also an interactive panel in front of the lab with information on where some of these fossils were found, the techniques used to get them ready for study, and the people who are doing it. It’s sort of interesting to watch the preparators at work: they’re all working through microscopes and using small tools — tiny little jackhammers and powered needles. It’s exacting work, to say the least.

On the other side of the hall is the Rice DNA Discovery Center, which fronts the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution. (Trying saying that even once real fast.) It’s the centerpiece of a larger display on DNA, what it is, how it works, and how we use it to determine the relationships of all living things. At the beginning is a video of Dr. Kelvin Feldheim in the field, which describes how he obtains samples of tissue from sharks to study their DNA. (This video is subtitled; a note explains that people doing fieldwork, especially with living organisms, can sometimes be very colorful in expressing themselves.) Opposite is a video, “DNA 101”, which describes DNA and its importance. It also enumerates the steps in analyzing DNA, which is expanded on in a series of panels in front of the lab window that include videos. The steps are: collect, extract, amplify, sequence, and analyze, and each is explained in some detail in the panels. Further along are panels illustrating the way living organisms are related, as discovered through comparing their DNA, along with a couple of cases of actual specimens.

As you go through the “Traveling the Pacific” exhibition, near the end you’ll come across the Regenstein Lab, which is devoted to the conservation and restoration of objects from the anthropology collections. As of this writing (December, 2018), the conservators are working on material from the North American Indian collections; those galleries are being re-conceptualized and re-installed, with projected completion date of 2021. (And in this one, at least, you can tell what the conservators are doing.)

And lest you think that those engaged in such painstaking and meticulous work are lacking in humor, the Regestein Lab has a sign in the window proclaiming it to be a “Velociraptor Free Worplace: 27,393,380,843 days since last incident.”

The labs are interesting adjuncts to the exhibitions, providing not only some additional information on the Museum’s collections, but also how it all works.

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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