Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago) - History

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History

The Palace of Fine Arts (also known as the Fine Arts Building) at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was designed by Charles B. Atwood for D. H. Burnham & Co. Unlike the other "White City" buildings, it was constructed with a brick substructure under its plaster facade. After the World's Fair, it initially housed the Columbian Museum, which evolved into the Field Museum of Natural History. When a new Field Museum building opened near downtown Chicago in 1920, the museum organization moved and the former site was left vacant.

Art Institute of Chicago professor Lorado Taft led a public campaign to restore the building and turn it into another art museum, one devoted to sculpture. The South Park Commissioners (now part of the Chicago Park District) won approval in a referendum to sell $5 million in bonds to pay for restoration costs, hoping to turn the building into a sculpture museum, a technical trade school, and other things. However, after a few years, the building was selected as the site for a new science museum.

At this time, the Commercial Club of Chicago was interested in establishing a science museum in Chicago. Julius Rosenwald, the Sears, Roebuck and Company president and philanthropist, energized his fellow club members by pledging to pay $3 million towards the cost of converting the Palace of Fine Arts (Rosenwald eventually contributed more than $5 million to the project). During its conversion into the MSI, the building's exterior was re-cast in limestone to retain its 1893 Beaux Arts look. The interior was replaced with a new one in Art Moderne style designed by Alfred P. Shaw.

Rosenwald established the museum organization in 1926 but declined to have his name on the building. For the first few years, the museum was often called the Rosenwald Industrial Museum. In 1928, the name of the museum was officially changed to the Museum of Science and Industry. Rosenwald's vision was to create a museum in the style of the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which he had visited in 1911 while in Germany with his family.

Sewell Avery, another businessman, had supported the museum within the Commercial Club and was selected as its first president of the board of directors. The museum conducted a nationwide search for the first director. MSI's Board of Directors selected Waldemar Kaempffert, then the science editor of The New York Times, because he shared Rosenwald's vision.

He assembled the museum's curatorial staff and directed the organizing and constructing the exhibits. In order to prepare the museum, Kaempffert and his staff visited the Deutsches Museum in Munich, the Science Museum in Kensington, and the Technical Museum in Vienna, all of which served as models. Kaempffert was instrumental in developing close ties with the science departments of the University of Chicago, which supplied much of the scholarship for the exhibits. Kaempffert resigned in early 1931 amid growing disputes with the second president of the board of directors; they disagreed over the objectivity and neutrality of the exhibits, and Kaempffert's management of the staff.

The new Museum of Science and Industry opened to the public in three stages between 1933 and 1940. The first opening ceremony took place during the Century of Progress Exposition. Two of the Museum's presidents, a number of curators and other staff members, and exhibits came to MSI from the Century of Progress event.

For years visitors entered the museum through its original main entrance, but it was too small to handle an increasing volume of visitors. The new main entrance is a structure detached from the main museum building, through which visitors descend into an underground area and re-ascend into the main building, similar to the Louvre Pyramid.

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