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Illustration: Justin Gabbard

Museum faux pas | 2011 in review

<p>We look back at the year and wonder, What were they thinking?</p>


“Stories in cloth”
In the past couple of years, I’ve been loath to join the museum-critic bandwagon panning collector-curated exhibits, a genre assumed to be tainted by subjective taste. I’m not sure the collector-curator show is a particularly new trend, or that it’s always bad. (Where would the Art Institute of Chicago be without Bertha Potter Palmer’s collection of iconic Impressionist paintings?) But this Loyola University Museum exhibit of textiles went too far when the collector-curator-poet (yes, poet) penned part of the wall text. I’ll spare you the first lines of verse; here is the last: “In our universe, only sunshine and flowers exceed [textiles].”

“The Searcher”
For all their brilliance in creating Grainger Sky Theater (See “Top Five”)—running on 45 computers and 84 IBM blade servers—the eggheads who produced the Adler Planetarium’s The Searcher muddled the movie’s plot. Hey, eggheads: Don’t get rid of the entryway special effects, Billy Crudup’s velvety voice or the J.J. Abrams–meets-real-science feel. But, please tinker with the “probe swarm” story line. And call us when it’s done. We still want to know what a probe swarm is.

“The Genius Spark of Nikola Tesla”
After I critiqued this Navy Pier exhibit, writing that it contained “dry—sometimes incomprehensible—texts profiling the prolific inventor,” I received a letter defending this free exhibit as being volunteer staffed. A suggestion: Charge tourists a dollar, and spend it on employing trained exhibition staffers. Call it a win-win. Folks are desperate for paying jobs, and Navy Pier tourist hordes are desperate for quality entertainment.

“Chocolate: Around the World”
According to a government-funded university study, nearly 2 million children work in the chocolate industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The Field Museum exhibit points out this child-labor crisis in a video display promoting sustainable industry in Africa. So why in the world did the museum turn around and sell and hand out pieces of Toblerone, a Kraft-owned company that, on its website, specifically claims to be not Fairtrade certified? We’re speechless.

Indian Art of the Americas wing
With the exception of a handful of smooth bannerstones (remarkable in their age, around 7,000 years old), the Art Institute of Chicago’s revamped wing displays quizzically boring North American artworks and artifacts in a mere ten display cases. Historically significant? Perhaps. But with scant information available (except sporadically timed, easy-to-miss videos), one can only assume that this country’s land bore little of artistic value for about 15,000 years.

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