My dear friend janmagic invited me to her birthday party on Friday. And what she wanted to do for her birthday party was to lead a group of friends on a trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, to see the Body Worlds exhibit, take in the Omnimax movie about the human body, and see a tiny bit of the rest of the museum in the remaining time.
I went shopping for a birthday card, and after several minutes of nothing but insipid crap, I came across a card which depicted a cute wide-eyed little girl in a doll factory holding a doll head, with a word bubble added that said (approximately) "Great idea for a field trip, Mrs. Benson! I think I'm screwed up for life!" This was so hilariously aporopos to how Jan was celebrating her birthday that after I picked myself up off the floor, I bought the card.
The trip up could have gone better. To be at the Museum of Science and Industry at 10 (allowing time for bad traffic) requires leaving my house really early. My body, of course, reacted to the knowledge that I'd be expected to get up at 5:30 by not letting me get to sleep until 3:30. But I managed all right. My mom rode up with me, and I was relying on her to know how to get to the Museum (I haven't been there since I was a kid). Unfortunately, she didn't actually know how to get there. And there was construction on the Dan Ryan. And I missed the entrance to the local lanes in the area where the museum was because of the construction, so we had to go too far and loop around. Worse, the exit marked for the museum is closed for the construction. We had to pick our way through the construction off the highway from the next-closest exit, which we somehow managed. Now, you'd think that, once you got off the main highway into the city on the street leading to the most famous museum in the middle third of the country, a place that people literally travel from all over the world to see, there would be lots of large friendly signs assuring you you were on the right track or telling you when you needed to turn. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. There are a few signs, but not enough, and especially not when you need them at forks in the road. But we managed to fumble our way there. At the last unmarked intersection, where the road T's, I turned left on a basic hunch, saying "I wonder if I guessed right", hunting for a sign, and spotted the museum up ahead.
The Body Worlds exhibit was quite interesting. It is an exhibit of a technique called plastination, which involves preserving a body or part of a body in plastic so that it becomes a durable solid object that can be kept on permanent display. There were boradly two kinds of displays: Individual parts and organs, sometimes whole, sometimes cutaway, often including examples of both healthy organs and various diseases, which were very informative, and whole bodies with certain selected parts emphasized, which seemed, at least in the display they were in, to be more there as art than as education. I did not find anything at all creepy or disrespectful about the sections and parts; they were fascinating and very informative. The whole bodies, however, seemed much less informational and much more sensational. Although there certainly was a weird beauty in the bizarre way they were displayed, I felt a bit squicked about it. I do hope that the people whose bodies were displayed that way, and their families, understood and approved of how the bodies were going to be used ahead of time.
I was quite frustrated to learn on entry to the Body Worlds exhibit that photography was strictly forbidden. To me, that policy, on top of the large extra fee to get into the exhibit, really reinforced the message that it was about making money by presenting an entertainment, rather than educating and enlightening. It was also frustrating that, even though we took two hours to go through an exhibit when they say the "in depth" tour takes an hour and a half, I would have needed at least three times as much time to feel like I'd really seen the whole thing. Squicky issues aside, it is a very impressive exhibit.
After the Body Worlds exibit we had lunch at the food court. It was fairly lame as food courts go, and quite expensive by normal standards, but only mildly atrocious by captive-audience concession standards. I paid $11 for a lunch that I would consider worth about $6 in the outside world. Lunchtime was also when the first wave of fatigue from no sleep the night before really hit. I really wanted to take a nap, but somehow I managed to drag myself to the movie.
I'd never seen a huge wraparound screen movie before, so the Omnimax was interesting for that. It was also cool that the 70mm film reels for the projector are visible behind glass at regular floor level, though the actual guts of the projector is a couple of stories up. The movie itself was a pretty elementary overview of human physiology, which interspersed interesting visuals of the actual subject material with a badly written, badly acted "story" that was, I suppose, meant to hold the interest of the typical present-day "science is boring" public -- perhaps the idea was to make the science presented exciting in contract to the incredibly banal story (which they certainly achieved), but I certainly would have preferred having the whole thing be a science presentation. The science footage had some parts that were pretty clearly real photographs, and some parts that I'm almost sure were animated, and some in between where I kept wondering if what I was seeing was real, and if it was, just how it was being done, or if it was animation being passed off as photography.
I found that if I tried to take in the whole screen, I quickly felt the beginnings of nausea, but as long as I concentrated on what was directly in front of me and didn't try to watch the whole screen, it was fine. So the Omnimax experience was wasted on me, I'm afraid.
After the movie was over, we wandered through a few exhibits, so we got to see perhaps 1% of what the rest of the museum had to offer. It was, of course, frustrating that we could see so little, but in what we could see, it was also frustrating to see that a lot of displays that haven't been kept up to date (such as the big world map showing how nuclear power is distrubuted, which still had the Soviet Union), and even a couple of the displays that were not working. It gave the impression of trying to put a brave face on an instituion that's severely short of funding and in decline from it. This was underscored by the fact that the museum closes at 4 PM, and that meant that they really started turning off lights and herding us out right at 4.
We got a special opportunity to stay later than 4, because one of Jan's friends, Doug, works at the museum. His badge says he's security, but he's also one of the people in charge of the biggest, coolest model train setup I've ever seen, if not the coolest there is. Doug is passionately interested in model trains, and even though I'm completely ignorant of the details and only interested in a general way, it was fun to listen to him talking about the details. Doug couldn't clock out before 5, and he gave a bunch of us a private talk about the train set after the museum officially closed at 4.
After Doug could leave work, we made our way to the restaurant that Jan had chosen for dinner, a place called Calypso near 53rd and Lake Park. It's a Jamaican restaurant, and while it's not a cuisine I know much about, the food was wonderful. One of the high points of the FKO con suite is the microwavable Jamaican pasties. I always enjoy them. Well, Friday night, I got to have the real thing as an appetizer, and it was like the difference between Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Ravioli and real ravioli in a good Italian restaurant. Delicious alone, and accompanied by a wonderful sauce that was the only thing I met at that dinner that was quite spicy by my standards. My entree was a jerk-marinated grilled half chicken; the chicken was wonderful and so was everything else on the plate. And for dessert there was key lime pie that was so rich it was almost cheesecake. If I'm ever needing a meal near Hyde Park in the future, I definitely want to go there again.
At dinner, I presented Jan with the card described above, which everyone found amusing, some chocolate that I got at Strawberry Fields (the health food store in Urbana), and a promise to give her a framed picture of her choice from Ecuador. She seemed very appreciative. I also gave her the gift from my mom. My mom rode with me to the museum, but because she had a prior commitment this evening in Urbana, she took the train home right after the movie (actually I think she left during the movie). I haven't talked to her about it, but I did have an unrelated email from her, so apparently she made it home. I hope the dance she went to was worth missing that dinner! I was a little surprised that no one else had gifts for Jan at that point -- wasn't this supposed to be a birthday party? -- but I guess that the other people were going to have other chances to give her presents.
During dinner, I mentioned that I was hoping to find a reasonable place to stay in the Chicago area that night, because I wanted to hit a camera store in the Loop on Saturday; this was made more urgent by the fact that after no sleep, a long and exciting day, and a very good meal, there's no way I could drive three hours home. Doug and his wife Helen most graciously offered to put me up for the night. They live near Woodfield, which is a pretty good drive from Hyde Park, and I was really having trouble holding myself together by the end of it.