Weird museums offer a real education

Opinion: Columns

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By Alan Brouilette

At some point last year we realized how much we love weird little museums in other cities, and started thinking about what Chicago might have to offer. So we've been on a little kick of local tourism lately. 

It's been great. Most small museums are either academic collections or what we have come to call "Deranged Millionaire Museums," a genre identified after visiting the Kansas boyhood home and associated museum of the man who invented Plexiglas (or something) and who, with his millions, founded and endowed a 20-acre junk drawer. There were 5,000 ballpoint pens, no two alike, if that gives you an idea. 

The Driehaus Museum is such a place. It's downtown in a building I would never even have identified as a house. Someone who made his money in money built it and decorated it, and 130 years later, someone else who made his money in money bought it and restored it. 

It's remarkable to see what the Done Thing was in those days, and the Done Thing was to build a scaled-down palace. Apparently the idea was that class and status were measured in those days, not by fame and followers but by similarities to European royalty. Sweeping marble staircases, smoking rooms, hunting scenes, servants' quarters, and garish displays of wealth by way of electric lightbulbs and European paintings. 

One of the rooms has a lot of loving description of the paintings that used to live there but are now housed in the Art Institute. This was a room in heavy use, with a fireplace and dogs and cigars, and a window to open onto the street, which must have been hazy with factory pollutants and cookfires. Now the Art Institute keeps them in climate-controlled rooms with special no-fade lighting and individual butler service. I get preservation, but I also kinda like the paintings more, knowing they used to just be what hung on somebody's wall. 

There was a special exhibit at the Driehaus, too — "The Art of Sitting," or something like that. A hundred or so different chairs. There were maybe nine you were allowed to sit on, which was diverting if for no other reason than the exhibit is on the third floor and I'd been reading plaques for two hours. I think of chairs as having a dozen basic forms, maybe two dozen: recliner, folding, dining room, office, etc., and a lot of what designers would call "playing with the form" is closer to "reinventing the wheel." Plus the original prices for some of these chairs … as I look at price tags I become ever more my father. 

We tried the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, too, which was more fascinating than wacky. I am drawn to stuff that's 2-3-4-5 thousand years old but quite recognizable as the detritus of daily life, for some reason. I don't know why "Hey, whoa, the Hittites had coffee mugs like ours!" hits that humanity button so hard, but it does. 

The Volo Museum, about 45 minutes north, is not a Deranged Millionaire Museum, though I suspect there is a deranged millionaire or two involved. The Volo Museum is either a successful attempt to monetize a collection or an attempt to draw customers to a business that eventually became the business itself. The Volo is a classic car dealership — you can buy yourself a '57 Chevy or a Model T, that sort of thing — and the Hollywood collection is intermingled with the inventory. The Hollywood collection is great: coupla Batmobiles, ECTO-1, a Bond car, a General Lee, all kinds of great cars I always wanted to own. (I'm conflicted on wanting a General Lee, but I have assuaged my conscience by realizing if I owned it, I could repaint it before I went off in search of an incomplete bridge and a pursuing sheriff.)

Maybe I visited the museums in the wrong order. Maybe I could've smoked cigars with Col. McCormick and gotten a MAKE HATTUSA GREAT AGAIN coffee mug if I'd gone to Volo first. 

They also have Doc Brown's DeLorean.

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