Art, History, and an Animatronic Harold Washington

Art, History, and an Animatronic Harold Washington

Not every museum in Chicago matches the size of the Art Institute, nor the international fame of the Field Museum. And thank goodness for that. It’s often in the smaller museums that I find myself better able to connect with the exhibits, actually appreciating the artifacts as opposed to silently mouthing curses at an obnoxious family hindering my view. Case in point: the DuSable Museum of African American History.

Jean-Baptiste-Point-du-Sable4Katie and I went to this museum knowing that the DuSable’s budget is modest. We didn’t have low expectations—just realistic ones. And we walked away after our time there feeling satisfied and fulfilled, but not blown away. (In fairness, I’m not sure anything was truly designed to blow us away, either.)The museum features ten “stops” that highlight different eras and aspects of African-American heritage. One of the first stops features artwork and artifacts from Africa, and while the space isn’t huge, it reveals the museums’ deep appreciation for African culture. The room is thoughtfully curated, with every available piece of space being used and a nice balance between explanatory signs and more interpretive artwork. From there, we entered an exhibit on the history of African Americans in the Armed Forces. As someone intrigued by the stories of the past, I was hoping for a more robust exhibit, but was still content with the letters, photographs, and uniforms from some of our country’s most overlooked soldiers.

After that comes the Harold Washington exhibit. Holy smokes, people. You all HAVE to come and see this exhibit, if for no other reason than to have the Animatronic Harold Washington Experience (I just made that title up). Among the news clippings, campaign posters, and photographs from Washington’s mayoral rise sits a diorama of Washington in his office. And when you press a button, Washington comes to life! His mannequin talks about what it was like campaigning to be mayor in the 80s, and then turns on a video for us to watch. And here’s the creepy part: while you’re watching the video, he stares at you. He doesn’t turn off; he stares at you. He’ll blink once in a while so you know he’s looking, and if you move away from his gaze like I did, his eyes will follow you. He’ll nod in agreement with some of the things in the video, and when something particularly impressive is said on the video, he’ll look back at you, as if to say “isn’t that great?” I am impressed by the mechanics behind Animatronic Harold Washington, but he was a little too real for my taste. There should always be some cartoonish quality left in a mannequin, lest it creates a situation like in this SNL skit.

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Katie and I could only watch one Animatronic Harold Washington lecture before getting too uncomfortable and moving on, but for those of you who enjoy intensely realistic robotics, there are two more available.

Katie and I could only watch one Animatronic Harold Washington lecture before getting too uncomfortable and moving on, but for those of you who enjoy intensely realistic robotics, there are two more available.

The downstairs of the museum is almost exclusively an art gallery, featuring the art of founder Margaret Burroughs, a photography exhibit called Reflections, and a mixed-media art response to the global water crisis. Each exhibit was moving and enlightening, but I was surprised that an entire floor of this two-level museum was dedicated solely to artwork. With the museum being named after Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable (the first non-native settler in Chicago; he was of African descent—oh man, my 3rd grade teacher Mr. Campbell would be so proud I remembered that!), I expected more history and Chicago-centric exhibitions, and personally would have preferred that over art, but everything in the museum was of high quality and well worth our Saturday afternoon.

Oh, and the gift shop. It’s pretty much an explosion of all things Obama. Did you know you could play a board game that parallels Obama’s road to the White House? I didn’t, but I’m sure glad I know that now.

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After we left the museum, we wandered around the surrounding Washington Park. (The museum is in a former ChicagoParks administration building, and is nestled among the meandering streets and open spaces of the park.) A recent snowfall made the park blindingly inhospitable, but I imagine that the park is a beautiful respite in the milder months. We cruised past the public pool, which has a pretty amazing waterslide that has definitely guaranteed our return during the summer.  The rest of the park features lagoons, a fishing pier, tennis courts, and plenty of open space. It all seemed beautiful, but like most things in Chicago, better in the summer.

If you don’t live in the Washington Park/Hyde Park/University of Chicago area, it’s worth a trip soon. Oh, and I forgot the best part: tons of free parking. Enjoy!

The DuSable Museum of African American History
740 E. 56th Place, Chicago
Admission: $5-$10

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