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Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago)

July 17, 2021

  • 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive
  • Chicago, IL 60637
  • (773) 684-1414
  • Website

I’ve been blogging since we moved from Illinois to Michigan 14 years ago. First, it was Mid-Michigan Dining when we lived in Lansing then I moved over to this blog when we moved to Kalamazoo in 2009.

One of my biggest regrets over the years was pigeon holing myself so much in the name. Why the heck would I blog about a museum in Chicago when the blog’s title tells you it’s going to be about food in Southwest Michigan?

I’ve never really addressed that before but I have written about many museums, zoos, concert venues, ballparks, and other entertainment options that don’t always involve food. Why? Because I blog like this is a journal. Most of our travels are focused around food but even when they’re not, I like having the record….so I write a blog that doesn’t quite fit in with the theme of this website.

J and I took the kids on a little mini vacation/long weekend to Chicago to do all the touristy things we don’t normally do. Our vacations normally involved zoos…and this one would to eventually, but our second full day in the City was rainy and miserable. There were no breaks in the rain to even consider a zoo.

J wanted to go to Shedd Aquarium, but two things…1.) it’s insanely expensive ($150 for a family of four just to get in) and 2.) there were no tickets left for Sunday by the time I started looking Saturday night.

I threw out the Museum of Science and Industry as an option. I remember really liking it the one time my parents took us there in the late 1980’s and it was indoors. J wasn’t too sure the kids were going to like it but we didn’t have any other options so I booked tickets.

The Museum of Science and Industry is located in Chicago’s Hyde Park Neighborhood (if that sounds familiar, that’s where the Obama’s are from). The museum sits just off Lake Michigan on Lake Shore Drive and East 57th Drive in Jackson Park. The building that houses this massive museum has an interesting history. It was originally built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 World’s Columbia Exposition. After the World’s Fair, the museum that eventually became the Field Museum was housed there before being moved to it’s current location further north on Lake Shore Drive. During the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, the Museum of Science Industry opened after a substantial fundraising drive.

The building itself is quite a spectacular sight. Unfortunately, you never get a really good look at it. The front doors haven’t been used in years because they can’t handle the visitor volume. The parking garage is under the front lawn so you pass the building on 57th Drive then grab a $22 parking spot underground.

We had already bought our tickets online and they’re still doing timed entries. We go there about 10 minutes before our ticket time. The really odd feeling thing about entry is you go down from the parking garage. It already feels like you’re underground but you go further down to the main entrance. There is a ticket counter there as well as the museum’s gift shop and long lines to queue up in. Our tickets were on my phone so we walked past the ticket line to the guy with a scanner who scanned us in.

After going down to get to the entry lobby, it’s back up two flights of escalators to get back to the main exhibit floor

The main level gives you options when you get to the top. There are three ways you can go plus stairs brining you to upper levels and eventually lower levels again The museum can be a little overwhelming at first and I had a hard time finding a clear path to see everything.

We started in Science Storms gallery. This gallery opened in 2010 and is a way to explore physics and chemistry in the natural world. J and I are kind of weather geeks so there was some cool stuff here for us.

The big piece in this gallery is a 40 ft. water vapor tornado that you can actually control with levers that open up and close fans. There was a guy there explaining how it worked but the kids just wanted to pull the levers and watch the tornado take different shapes.

There are a lot of really cool interactive exhibits here. There are some brilliant exhibits using natural light being let in through mirrors on the museum roof. There’s also a Tesla coil, a Wimshurst Machine built by James Wimshurt in the late 19th Century, a Newton’s cradle, exhibits on light, electricity and a huge avalanche disc that spins eight tons of dirt.

The next gallery we headed to was the Transportation Gallery.

I know what you’re thinking. Why is there an Incredible Hulk right in the middle of that gallery? Easy to answer. The traveling exhibit right now is a Marvel exhibit. Unfortunately, that thing is sold out well in advance. It’s an additional fee on top of the museum entrance and we couldn’t have gotten tickets for it if we wanted to. And, trust me, I really, really wanted to.

Anyway, back to transportation. The first big thing we came to here was the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Number 999 Empire State Express. This is the first steam locomotive alleged to reach over 100 mph in the late 19th Century. They have a ramp leading up so you can check out the engineer’s compartment and I got to explain to my 5 year old what a Dead Man’s Break was.

There’s also a huge scale model railroad display called The Great Train Story (it even has it’s own Wikipedia page). B was really in to this which I found kind of surprising. We walked around the 3500 square foot model watching the trains going through mountains, over rivers and could even interact with it a little bit by stopping the train with a button or making trees fall in the forested areas (also with a button). The story of the model recounts the modern day transportation story between Chicago and Seattle. There are Amtrak’s, freight trains, and Chicago passenger trains, the CTA, Metra, and South Shore Line.

As we were walking away from the model was came to a Mold-A-Rama. I still can’t pass these up. This is something from my childhood. All the zoos and museums in Chicago have them. This particular one made injection molded models of the train we just checked out so B asked for one. I’m a sucker and paid for it. B carried that little train around with him the rest of the weekend. I don’t think he knows where it is now but it was worth the $3 just to see him playing with it. I know they used to have these things in Michigan but I haven’t seen any at the places we’ve been. All the usual places in Chicago still seem to have them.

We circled back to this a little later because it’s on the upper floor but another cool thing in the Transportation Gallery is the first Boeing 727 jet plane used in commercial service. One of the wings has been removed so the plane sits flush with the balcony. You can walk in to the plane and see what airplane’s used to look like and how the landing gear and baggage areas work underneath the seats. There are also other planes hanging from the ceiling including German Ju 87 R-2/Trop. Stuka divebomber and a replica of the Wright Brothers first airplane.

From here we found a couple exhibits that weren’t open likely do to COVID. We passed through the ToyMaker 3000 area which is a working toy assembly line. Nothing was going on so we walked through quickly.

They had some displays of toys that had been made but it really wasn’t all that interesting with nothing going on.

The Coal Mine is also near the main gallery but it’s mostly shut down due to COVID. That would have been an additional fee if it were open but this is something I remember doing as a kid (can’t believe my parents paid extra for it). I re-creates a working deep-shaft, bituminous coal mine using original equipment from 1933. You actually go down into a mine and ride a train through the different parts of the mine.

We moved pretty quickly through Genetics and the Baby Chick Hatchery. We didn’t see any baby chicks but we did see some cloned mice. This is another one of the galleries that is more learning focused than hands on. L shows some interest in these but B just wants to touch things.

The next place we went in to was Fast Forward…Inventing The Future. Not gonna lie…B loved this one because there was so much video game like tech. There was a lot to read here, which I was doing, but there was also a lot of interactive video and shadow games the kids played.

We could feel ourselves starting to go deeper and deeper underground at this point. I knew we were heading to probably the coolest exhibit MSI has…the U-505 submarine.

This exhibit is amazing. You start out going through several galleries to get the story of how the 505 was captured. I’m totally a history buff and L is becoming one too. The allies only captured six German U-Boats during the course of World War II and this is the only one on display in the Western Hemisphere.

The kids kind of shocked me at just how in to this exhibit they were. For a long time, there was nothing to touch but we happened to come up on a short film just as it was starting and both of them were glued to the screen. The movie explained how the sub was captured and both paid enough to attention to ask questions afterwards. They had no idea we would actually get to see the sub…which would answer some of their questions… if we kept walking.

The story of how the U-505 got in to the Museum of Science and Industry is fascinating. When my parents took me to MSI in the late 80’s, this sub was outside…as it had been since they picked it up and moved it across Lake Shore Drive from Lake Michigan in the 1950’s. In the early 2000’s, they moved the sub indoors because it was deteriorating too quickly in the harsh Chicago weather. They heated the sub for tours in the winter and the heat was causing condensation and damage that would eventually non replaceable. There’s a fascinating video on how they built an underground vault then moved the sub just 1000 feat over six days….inches at a time, lowered it in to place, then finished building the vault it now sits in today that you really should watch…HERE’s the YouTube link….there’s also a video on the sub’s arrival in 1954 HERE. When you walk in to that vault and see the sub, the size of it is just mind blowing.

During normal times, the sub is an extra ticketed exhibit. These are not normal times and since they’re not letting people all the way, there’s no extra ticket to buy. Once you get all the way down the massive ramp, there’s another line for a “peek inside.”

You don’t get to see much but you can see how sailors lived while they were out at sea. The kids were pretty fascinated with the bunk beds and the small holes between “rooms” sailors would have to climb through. I didn’t tell them it was like that so they could seal off parts of the ship if they were attacked and in danger of drowning everybody on board.

Once we got out of there, there was, of course, a video game to play. B just had to play so we waited our turn. The game had the controls of the German sub and went through a quick lesson on avoiding depth charges before turning you loose to see if you could outrun the Allied ship trying to capture you. After waiting for 15 minutes to play, B couldn’t figure the game out and even with my help, got captured pretty quickly.

We had been at the museum a couple of hours as this point and exhaustion and hunger were starting to set in. We saw some vending machines when we came in so we went looking for those. We kind of quickly went through the Farm Tech exhibit and never went back. Same for the circus area and unfortunately, the Henry Crown Space Center.

We started doubling back after getting a snack to some of the upper level exhibits. The last thing we came upon before leaving was Yesterday’s Main Street. This is a throw back with some of the big businesses that got their start in Chicago. Walgreens Drug Company has a storefront…as does Marshall Field, Jewel, and Berghoff.

There’s a Nickelodeon theater at the end of Main Street that would normally be open and showing period reels…but…..COVID. Same for the Finnigan’s Ice Cream parlor. Both were closed.

That pretty much did it for us. There was A LOT that we didn’t get to but we were all hitting a wall. I thought the kids actually did really good and we all seemed to enjoy the museum. Someone, we headed back down the escalator and no one asked to go in the gift shop.

We did have to do one Marvel thing before we left. We couldn’t get in to the exhibit but we could take a picture in the Marvel Adventure Lab photo booth. We got a $10 photo of the four of us drawn as comic characters on the cover of a Guardians of the Galaxy comic book.

It has been close to 30 years since I last went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I’ve been trying to get the family there for a few years now but J was probably right about holding off until they were a little older. L is really starting to take an interest in things like this and it curious about how things work. B just likes smashing buttons….he’s a five year old boy. This isn’t a children’s museum where you just kind of play. It’s a hands on learning museum where all of the button smashing has a reason behind it. We still have so much more to see. I wouldn’t rule out another trip in a few years when B starts to get more interested in the how too.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 18, 2021 7:25 am

    Have never heard of a Mold -A – Rama machine. Fascinated.

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