What happens when you try to visit all the museums on and around campus in one day? You make a Snapchat story out of it, of course. [Want to watch this feature in Snapchat Story form? Click here!]
As a certified botanical garden, the site of the first chain reaction, and home to more than 5,500 undergraduate students (the vast majority of whom might seem to be sprawling in the sunlight on the Quad any given spring day), the University of Chicago has a lot to take in. But sometimes, true learning comes from the things, thoughts, and places that take you in.
Or at least, that’s what I told myself as I set out to spend an entire day visiting as many of the museums, galleries, and creative spaces on or around campus as possible. And with our Arts Pass benefits as UChicago ID holders, all students can get in for free or at reduced rates—an edge that not all students may have a chance to take advantage of.
My day began at Dollop to load up on snacks and plan out my best cultural corridor across campus. (The large-scale map of Hyde Park next to Henry Crown came in handy for this.) First on the list was the Neubauer Collegium, one of the newest additions to campus, whose self-stated goal is “to create research communities that explore complex human problems in path-breaking ways.” In other words, the students and Fellows involved in the Collegium love to peruse the depths of the humanities and other disciplines, manifesting in public events, speakers, conferences, and even exhibitions like the one I got to check out.
“The Past Sold,” which was an exhibition that closed May 12, explored the question of how ancient goods and exquisite artifacts are transported, especially from the Middle East. Drone footage combined with loaned items from the Oriental Institute and other research stemming from the six-month project to showcase the issue and raise a dialogue. Its short but satisfying gallery brought out deeper questions than I expected from the building I pass by every time I’m heading for milkshakes on 57th Street.
From the ancient to the more-modern: my second museum of the day was the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House, only a block away at 58th and Woodlawn. This is another building that I frequently pass and appreciate from afar, but never explored until this day. A volunteer docent brought us back to the 1910s, when the house was constructed, keeping the 21st-century buzz of food trucks, CTA buses, and speeding bicyclists at bay. The way the guide described life in the low, flat Prairie Schools style supported by 174 windows throughout the house helped me imagine the Robie children playing in the common areas and guests relaxing at dinner parties. Seeing the previously new-fangled technology of the home’s era gave me a greater appreciation for the modern conveniences at the dorm where I spent my first two years in college, International House, just blocks away.
Finally I reached the next destination: Cobb Hall, also known as the hub of first- and second-year requirements such as Hum, Sosc, and foreign languages. But a little known fact is that tucked away on the fourth floor is actually an extremely well lit treasure trove of contemporary art: the Renaissance Society.
“We were founded in 1915 by University faculty, so we’ve been around for over 100 years on the University of Chicago’s campus,” said Amber Collins, a third year and gallery attendant. “I really like its history and that the Ren works with new artists to produce new work. When we have an opening, the artist is typically here and gives a talk about their work. It’s super exciting and interesting to hear an artist talk about their art in their own words.”
Clad in black-and-white photos and graphics, the Ren’s spring exhibition Klein/Olson examines physical and psychological spaces. In such a grand but non-imposing space like the Renaissance Society, the exhibit leaves room for curiosity and wonderment.
“Because the Ren is committed to rigorous inquiry and experimentation, we’re flexible in the sense that we can work with artists who are living and practicing in this time,” Collins added. “My relationship to art has changed because of that.”
Crisscrossing the Quad once again, I stopped into the Oriental Institute in a flashback to a much earlier era of art. Seeing these ancient artifacts in relation to the Past Sold gallery at the Neubauer Collegium provided a deeper context to the discovery and procurement of the items, many dating back as late as 10,000 BC.
The Oriental Institute has a storied history with the University of Chicago; archaeologists from the school have spent decades in the Middle East and surrounding areas digging up the past. Some of the OI’s most notable pieces include a giant stone tablet with the Laws of Hammurabi, a 40-ton human-headed winged bull, and at least three intact mummies by my count.
After charging my phone, I went back north to the Smart Museum of Art. Crystal Wren, a passionate docent and fourth-year, showed me around.
“This is Pretzel Bear!” She exclaimed in front of a human-sized costume suit adorned with small twigs and wires, aka “Soundsuit” by artist Nick Cave. “I want to give him a big hug but I can’t because that’s against the rules. He’s one of my favorite pieces in our contemporary gallery.”
Indeed, the collections at the Smart run the gamut from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s (including the original table from the Robie House—gotta love those inter-University connections). The Smart is also home to Miriam’s Café, which brings visitors into the first layer of the museum as the lobby.
“I must confess—I had never been to the Smart Museum before I was looking for a job,” Crystal said. “Now I’m like ‘Wow, more people should utilize this place.’”
As a member of the Student Advisory Committee, Crystal helps introduce the Smart to others through planning events and serving as an ambassador. She frequently gives tours to schoolkids, preparing her for her future as an elementary school teacher.
“I definitely want to keep art in the classrooms. It’s very important,” she said. “If I can work in Chicago I would definitely want to bring my kids on fields trips to a museum like this. They get hands on experience in what it means to be in a museum, what is museum culture, and all that jazz.”
Energized by Crystal’s passion, I continued on my trek to the Regenstein Library. Nestled along the pathway to Mansueto from the main lobby of the Reg is the Special Collections Research Center’s Exhibition Gallery. Changing about every quarter, the exhibits showcase work done by researchers in the University with the help of Special Collections, the principal repository for and steward of hundreds if not thousands of rare books, manuscripts, archives, and other primary sources. It’s easy to pass by this exhibit (and others on the various floors of the Reg) but it’s definitely worth a peruse on the way to or from Mansueto’s glass dome.
The spring exhibit was Tensions in Renaissance Cities, so I quietly poked around the geography from 15th century Venice, ornately decorated ceramic birth bowls, and other artifacts before making my way up to 55th Street for the next leg of the museum journey.
After crisscrossing and backtracking across campus all day long, it was time to step away and visit the Arts Incubator, down Garfield Boulevard and across from the Green Line station. Funded by the University and created by artist visionary Theaster Gates through the Arts+Public Life initiative, in 2013 the Incubator transformed a 1920s building in neighboring Washington Park into a community-supported hub of local artistry and creativity.
“What do we do here at the Arts Incubator? We incubate the art! We’re a place where artists make art, present, talk about, [and] show art,” said Nikki Patin, the community arts engagement manager. The on-site wood shop, gallery space, and Monday night live jazz events are just some tangible examples. Nikki shows me around the space, which had an exhibition called The Petty Biennal in place through June 23rd.
The last stop of the day is arguably the biggest hub of student art on campus. Once I got back to the Midway Plaisance, I had to end the experience at the Logan Center, home to the Department of Visual Arts, Logan Café, and numerous performing spaces. Over my past four years at UChicago I’ve attended everything in Logan from a student circus troupe to a cappella concerts to even a forum of Illinois gubernatorial candidates (the question of if that forum was art, however, is up for debate).
Before plopping down in Logan Café with a sandwich and cool juice, I take a swing through the first floor exhibition of the creations of graduate students in the visual arts. Their theses have come to life as screenings, sculptures, and more across the gallery.
Even as I take a seat in the café, I notice the art lining the walls. A fellow fourth-year, Miki Takeshita, helped coordinate and curate a photography series called “Migrants and Dreaming Identity,” focusing on the identities that migrants assume when they make a home in a new place.
Looking back on my map, there are two places near campus that I wasn’t able to visit in the same day: the Museum of Science and Industry, about a mile east of campus and alongside the lakefront, and the DuSable Museum of African-American History, half a mile west in Washington Park. Still, not too shabby of a cultured day—and UChicago students can still visit either one for free with their UCIDs. (The Arts Pass list extends to a lot more places, and you can see the full roster here.)
From the antiquities of the Oriental Institute to the contemporaries of the Smart Museum and the Renaissance Society to the futures of students at the Logan Center, it feels as though I’ve traveled through time and not just the Quad. As students we can often forget about the many opportunities for cultural exploration literally within our reach. After all, what you see is more than what you get.