Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History: What Is An Animal?

When I was a small child (as in, about five years old), my father would take me to the Field Museum; I always wanted to look at the “stuffed animals.” (And I should note that the “stuffed animals” on display are barely the tip of the iceberg of the Museum’s specimens.) In the intervening years, the Museum has done some rethinking on the organization of those exhibits, grouping them in ways that more or less make sense (“Mammals of Asia,” for example). One thing that is new (well, since I was five) is an introductory exhibit geared toward school children, “What Is An Animal?”

Now, you may think you know the answer to that, but — well, think about it for a minute.

Outside the exhibition proper are several cases with examples, both skeletons and taxidermied specimens, of the range of animal forms. Just inside the entrance is a small case with a sign that asks “Which is an animal?” The case shows a coconut and a top-spined sea biscuit. While the latter may not sound like an animal, it is — it has all the characteristics, which are elucidated in a video at the beginning of the exhibition that explains the characteristics shared by all animals.

Next are several display cases showing the variety of colors, shapes and sizes in animals, which leads into a series of dioramas showing the various habitats that animals occupy: land, fresh water, coastal seas, the oceanic “twilight zone”, and the ocean depths, where sunlight never penetrates (which doesn’t stop animals from living there).

This leads into a series of large panels with displays along one wall that explore the different ways animals move — the various means of terrestrial travel, swimming, flying — and not moving, because there are animals that, though mobile when young, eventually settle down and become rooted, so to speak, to one spot. (Think “corals and sponges”.)

Next is a section on senses, which includes all the usual five plus electricity — there are, in fact, some animals that sense the electrical fields of other animals and the world at large.

What follows is a section of several large displays that show, in essence, the uses animals make of these senses in courtship, reproduction, feeding, and not being eaten. In the center is a quite entertaining video giving examples of all these behaviors, emphasizing the various strategies and adaptations that animals have developed over time.

Did you know there are three kinds of skeletons? There are hydrostatic skeletons, which are found in those animals that you didn’t think have skeletons — jellyfish, for example. There are also the more expected types — exoskeletons (corals, lobsters, bugs) and endoskeletons — not only vertebrates have them, but they’re also found in starfish and their relatives.

Next is a large area that summarizes the various groups of animals, and there are many more than you thought, all the way from Porifera, Cnidaria, Arthropoda, Mollusca, Chordata, and more — there’s even a whole section showing the various orders of worms.

Toward the end of the exhibition is a reprise of the introductory video, and then you have your choice of exits — to the right, there is a passage to a hall of birds and reptiles, to the left, mammals.

Yes, “What Is An Animal?” is, as I noted, aimed a school children, but there is a lot of information there that even I didn’t know, and I’ve been reading about this stuff since my dad took me to see the stuffed animals.

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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