Visiting Chicago's museums virtually By Jane Huth

When I moved back to Chicago five years ago, I had lofty dreams of taking my children to the Art Institute to see the paintings I’d loved as a child. Sad to say, the closest I have come to those Renoirs is a swift glance at the outside of the building on my way up or down Michigan Avenue.

Harried doesn’t begin to describe my life, and if you are a parent of young children you know what I mean. If I can’t pack my kids into the car for a trip to a museum, at least I can take them for a visit on the Web.

I looked up the Web sites of several museums in the Chicago area I’d most like to take my kids to visit, and then bookmarked the sites in my Web browser. Some of the Web sites offer intriguing online exhibits while others are just a resource for hours and offerings. As the weather warms up, I may actually take my kids to a museum or two. In the meantime, we visit the Web sites, make our plans and dream.

Art Institute of Chicago; I couldn’t find my favorite Renoirs at this site, but I found lots of other treasures remembered from my youth, including Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day” and Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday on the Grande Jatte—1884.” The reproductions are tantalizingly tiny, but my kids liked clicking on thumbnails to enlarge them (by magic!) into entire paintings. OK, so it’s not an Art Institute visit, but this site is fun. It offers selections from the museum’s vast collections, as well as simple art games and virtual visits to the galleries. Search under kids and families and you’ll find at-home craft activities such as making hieroglyphics or creating art from found objects. If you can’t make it to the museum, the Web site is definitely worth a visit.

Chicago Children’s Museum; I would have liked a little more fun at this site, which is slick and informative but not exactly playful. No, we have not ventured to the Chicago Children’s Museum, mostly because I loathe Navy Pier parking. From the exhibit photos and descriptions on the Web site, I’m sure my kids are missing out. So I’ve resolved to take them soon. But the site is not a lot of fun. Maybe that’s the idea (if they make it too much fun, people won’t visit the museum), but I think a museum for children should also have a Web site kids can enjoy.

Chicago Historical Society; I grew up in the suburbs, so I what I know about Chicago’s history fits in a teacup. My kids are definitely going to spend some time in that building as they grow up, but the museum’s Web site is also an interesting visit. Along with basic information about exhibits and programs, the site includes fascinating online exhibits from the museum and elsewhere about Chicago so kids can learn about the city without leaving home. Although I loved the “Great Chicago Fire” exhibit, the online walking tour of the “Illinois and Michigan Canal” was little more than a brief slide show. There’s also a link to a vast archive of Chicago Daily News photographs from 1902-1933 and another to a site honoring Chicago author and newsman Studs Terkel.

Field Museum of Natural History; They’ve got it right at the Field Museum’s Web site, where virtual visits are almost as much fun as the museum. Easy to navigate, the site is packed with graphics and exhibit information that make it fun for both adults and kids. The Web site, like the museum, is worthy of repeat visits. Recently I browsed through highlights of the “National Baseball Hall of Fame” exhibit. The very slick, sophisticated site includes a page of Chicago baseball trivia (Q: What was the original name of Wrigley Field? A: Weeghman Park), a baseball timeline and lists of baseball books and movies. There’s a lot to see at this site, such as objects from the museum’s vast collection, including masks made by the Southwest Nigerian Yaruba tribe. The site includes dozens of links to other museum sites detailing research into biodiversity in the Congo, brilliantly colored Peruvian birds and, of course, the ongoing restoration of Sue, the enormously expensive T-rex skeleton the museum bought in 1997.

Mitchell Museum of the American Indian; I was disappointed there were no photos from the 26-year-old Mitchell Museum, which houses 9,000 Native American objects. I learned the museum has craft mornings and “touching tables” where kids can handle Indian artifacts and materials such as snakeskin, buffalo hide and birch bark. The museum looks interesting, but the site is, well, sparce.

Museum of Broadcast Communications; A fairly unexciting site considering the subject. I couldn’t get the video to work, which made it dull indeed, since the site offers an intriguing “10 Years Ago Today” news broadcast each day, clips from old TV programs and other enticing video tidbits. Graphics are bland, but the site does offer a television encyclopedia with short essays of historical importance, such as the classic sitcoms “Green Acres” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” Honestly, I don’t see why this isn’t a virtual museum, since almost all of its holdings could be placed on the Web. But kids can go “on the air” in the museum’s real radio and television studios, and the picture of the museum’s new building in River North looked nice enough to get me out of the house. But, I have time. It doesn’t open until 2004.

Terra Museum of American Art; I like the idea of an American art museum, yet I wasn’t thrilled with this Web site until I found “Painting the Story,” under the education link, a few pages for kids that explain the story behind four pieces in the collection. For example, a painting by Morse code inventor Samuel F. B. Morse depicts a single gallery in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Morse filled it with paintings from all over the museum and painted it in 1833 as a way of educating Americans about the Louvre’s art collection. The Web site also includes a selection of paintings, but it doesn’t really give the visitor a feel for the 15-year-old museum. I’m still planning to take my kids to the museum, but I was only marginally impressed by its Web site.



Jane Huth is a freelance writer living in the north suburbs with her husband, one preschooler and one kindergartner.  



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