Beyond

A Field Museum Docent’s Guide to Getting the Most From Your Museum Week Visit 

A note from the editor: Museum docents are formally trained volunteers who are stationed in museums to provide guided tours in the museum’s exhibition halls, and oftentimes have either a background or strong interest in the field of study the exhibition centers on. These volunteers are an integral part of the museum’s culture and because of their training and enthusiasm for museums, make wonderful guides to something like Museum Week. Third Coast Review’s own Nicholas Blashill serves as a Field Museum docent, so we decided to call upon his knowledge to get the scoop on making the most of your visit to the Field Museum this Museum Week. Enjoy!

Considering an upcoming trip to the Field Museum? Perhaps you read our Museum Week overview and want to say “See ya later” to SUE. Or maybe you want to visit during February, when Illinois residents can receive free admission. Whatever your reason, this SUE docent is here to provide you with everything you need to know to get the most out of your visit to Chicago’s natural history museum.

Time Your Visit

Grainger Hall of Gems

While the free tour schedule at the Field Museum fluctuates, two tours are mainstays: the 11am museum highlights tour, and the noon SUE talk. Combined, they’re a great way to kick off your visit. I recommend showing up around 10:30am, which will give you time to buy your tickets, check your coat (near the South entrance), and rent a wheelchair or stroller if a member of your party requires either. Once you’re in, make your way over to the info desk for the highlights tour. It lasts an hour, and balances the museum’s signature attractions with lesser known stories and artifacts. On my first highlights tour, for example, my eyes were opened to the stellar geology section, complete with a set of beautiful gemstones. The tour is informal, so you can break off from the group if you want to linger in a particular exhibit.

As the museum highlights tour finishes, you’ll be able to catch the SUE talk. While reading the digital rail information is a great introduction to SUE, listening to this talk will expose you to a far greater depth of information about the world’s largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. You’ll learn things like which bones were visible when fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson discovered the skeleton (hint: they’re a different color than the rest), what SUE sounded like (more like something you may have had for dinner than the ferocious roar from Jurassic Park), and the latest research on what those tiny arms were really for (probably not pushups). SUE will soon be going on hiatus as she spends the next year moving upstairs to the Evolving Planet exhibit, so this will be your last chance to see her in Stanley Field Hall. February will be a truly unique experience, as the Field Museum will be surrounding her with glass while she is being disassembled. If you happen to be visiting on a weekday, you’ll even be able to see workers taking her bones down. SUE talks will continue throughout February, allowing you to learn not just about SUE, but about the process of moving such precious cargo.

Learn Something (Completely) New

Every day there is a list of tours on the screen behind the information desk. The pro move, however, is to check the Google calendar available on the museum’s website up to two weeks in advance to plan your visit accordingly. While some of the topics are expected, you can also explore areas you’d never even thought of. I went on an excellent Friday afternoon tour about bird coloration, led by a young woman with a PhD in the subject. It’s worth it to point out that even those of us who aren’t professional scientists are still avid fans who’ve read up and been formally tested, so any tour will be conducted by someone who is both knowledgeable and passionate.

Ask Questions

The friendly folks in powder blue Land’s End shirts are there to help you make the most of your visit. And while we’re happy to point to the nearest restroom or direct you to the 3D theater, we’re also there to answer your questions about the Field Museum’s many treasures. The Pawnee Earth Lodge, for example, has an open house on weekdays from 1:00pm to 3:00 p.m. and weekends from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with a docent on hand to answer your questions. I myself informally facilitate next to SUE, where I’ve gotten wonderful questions, including the following:

Q: What did SUE die of?

A: Old age. She was 28 years old (old for a T. Rex), and there’s evidence of bone disease like arthritis and osteoporosis, a parasitic infection in her jaw, and an infection in her lower left leg.

Q: Is it real?

A: SUE’s skeleton is over 90% real by volume. The major part of the skeleton that’s not real when you’re looking at it is her skull, which is housed upstairs, underneath the mural of SUE. It’s up there for three reasons:

  1. SUE’s bones fossilized with mostly iron, so her head now weights 600 pounds. It would be too heavy to mount with the current armature.
  2. The skull can be observed by scientists up close without having to manually take it down from its armature.
  3. After death, SUE’s powerful neck muscles began to decay, and eventually broke on the right side. This caused the still intact muscles on the other side to yank her head sideways, causing it land on her hip. There is now a large dent in the left side of her real skull, and a corresponding dent on the left side of her hip. When scientists made the cast of the skull, they bumped the dent out to make it look more like it did in life.

SUE’s skull. Notice the damage on the left side!

SUE’s left hip, which also suffered postmortem damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Q:(from a tiny human) Was it a good dinosaur or a bad dinosaur?

A: Well, I’m not sure if it was good or bad, but it did eat other dinosaurs. In fact, they’ve found a T. Rex tooth in the tail of another dinosaur, so we know that they ate other dinosaurs.

Have any other questions? Stop by the Museum on a Sunday afternoon and ask!

The Field Museum is open 9am to 5pm every day except Christmas. During Museum Week, Illinois residents will receive $2 off ticket purchases, and those with EBT or WIC identification will receive $3 admission for up to six people. Illinois residents receive free admission on January 27 and 28, and during the whole month of February.

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2 replies »

  1. Thanks for all the tips. I’d like to visit the Ancient Mediterranean Cultures exhibit. Do you have any advice on whether it makes sense to visit on a Saturday or Sunday in February, or would it be too crowded because of the free admission that month? Are there any ways to avoid the crowds? I’d prefer to come midday, like 1 or 2 pm. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on what time of day, or which days, would be best so that we can get tickets and are not rushed through due to crowds. Thanks.

    • Great question! In general, weekdays are less crowded than weekends, and mornings are less crowded than afternoons, so a weekend afternoon will be the most crowded time of the week. I’ve never found the crowds to be overwhelming, even over July 4th, so I don’t anticipate you feeling too rushed to enjoy the exhibits whenever you visit.

      Personally, I have found that the museum starts to clear out around 3 p.m. on Sundays, so showing up at 2 on Sunday would be the best option based on what you laid out. Of course, if you really want to avoid the crowds and don’t care about football then Sunday February 4th (Super Bowl Sunday) is the way to go.

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