Need a skeleton or artifact? Ask the Field

Chicago Tribune journalists Chris Jones, Nina Metz, and Mark Caro on the Field Museum's first ever web series, which debuted earlier this month. (Posted on: August 27, 2013)

There's this old joke, or there could be: How many art teachers does it take to load a life-size T. rex skull into the back of a rented pick-up truck?

The answer, on a recent afternoon at the Field Museum, was "two, plus a few other people who were around the loading dock and could guide the plaster cast up into place."

The punchline needs work. But it was, nonetheless, a remarkable thing to see people taking valuable-looking scientific material out of the Field with full approval of those who work there.

Ed Pino and Nikki Jarecki, who teach at Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary in the Pilsen neighborhood, plan to use the replica dinosaur skull as the focal point of various art projects over the next several weeks.

"Oh my gosh. I'm so excited to see my students and how excited they'll be about it," Jarecki said. "I think it's the most interesting still-life one could imagine in a middle school."

The skull — which many at the museum think is a replica of the head of its famed Sue skeleton, but is, it turns out, the cast of another T. rex altogether — is part of the N.W. Harris Learning Collection, one of the most unusual and unsung lending libraries you will find.

Located on the building's bottom floor, in the old Hall of Fishes, the Harris will also lets members take out a statuesque stuffed beaver, a box full of shoes of the world, a diorama showing two prairie pocket gophers burrowing upward to break the soil's surface, and about 1,000 other objects or collections of objects.

The roomful of scientific artifacts was developed as a tool for schools but is open to anyone who buys a membership. Membership packages are good for 12 months and include up to 40 items borrowed in a year for $100, or 10 items for $50. They can be reserved, via phone or the online catalog, and there are evening hours and parking when loading. (Full details at harris.fieldmuseum.org).

One of the relative handful of people outside of the educational community who does use it, staffers said, is Trib Nation manager James Janega, who said he "stumbled on" the collection when the newspaper was co-hosting an event in the adjacent theater.

"When I asked if you had to be from a school or an institution to sign up, (assistant Sara Henderson) said anyone could do it," Janega recalled. "'I could list my institution as 'cool parent?'" They said yes. And that is what I filled out on my card."

He and his wife, Sarah, have taken out items ranging from multicultural math to frogs and toads for their kids, ages 3 and 7, and Sarah Janega recently borrowed a glass-encased box containing an old bird, a coot, in order to have something appropriate on hand at her father's birthday party.

Another member, administrator Lindsey Snyder said, checked out the snowy owl so she could tell her 11-year-old nephew, at a party for him, that he'd been accepted to Hogwarts, the school of magic in the "Harry Potter" books in which owls are messengers.

Most creatures for teachers

But more typical, about 90 percent of the users, are the teachers, a steady stream of whom were coming in Tuesday afternoon and wheeling out "experience boxes" of materials about, for example, Great Lakes plant diversity, geology of Illinois, rocks and minerals, and Lewis and Clark.

All that, plus a couple of more items, was headed for the car of Leslie Swain-Store, who teaches 4th-to-7th grade science at CPS's Keller Regional Gifted Center in the Mount Greenwood neighborhood.

"So wait until the kids show up tomorrow and this is all set up in the classroom," she said. "It's going to be an explosion!"

Kindergarten teacher Audrey Benes, from Walsh Elementary School in Pilsen, talked about the importance of having "actual visuals" in class. "We're going to do a fish this time," she said, "and also an experience box with trees."

Despite the busy Tuesday afternoon, Snyder — who trained as a teacher, not a librarian, and has been at the Field since she was a teen volunteer — said the collection could stand to be more popular. Membership is back up over 300 after an 18-month closure and updating that finished in 2012, but that's compared with membership in the Field Museum of 47,000.

And after the renovation this year of the nearby James Simpson Theater to show 3D movies at the museum, there has been more serendipitous foot traffic into the Harris.

People are drawn by the T. rex skull, usually out in the hall with an "open" sign between its teeth, or by the massive, beautiful old Bahamian fish diorama that features coral and great white sharks in action and occupies almost an entire wall of the library.

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