The Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago is reason enough to visit the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood, especially for those with kids in tow. But Hyde Park has several wonderful small museums that also merit a visit. Indeed, it wouldn’t be difficult to spend a delightful long weekend without ever leaving the South Side neighborhood, visiting museums and used bookstores (Powell’s Books Chicago is a treasure) and seeing performances at the Court Theatre or Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
On this visit to Hyde Park, we skipped over the Museum of Science and Industry and visited three lesser-known gems. Even many Chicagoans (North Siders, at least) haven’t made it to these institutions. Note that all three of the museums below are closed on Mondays.
Divided between a beautiful 1915 administration building for Washington Park and a 1993 extension, this fascinating museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mosaics by Thomas H. Miller celebrating Chicago’s black history decorate the historic entry hall, and exhibitions elsewhere cover a wide range of subject matter. I was particularly fascinated by Clearing a Path for Democracy: Citizen Soldiers of the Illinois Fighting 8th and The Love Affair Continues, an exhibition of contemporary art of the African diaspora. The moving Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality covers the history of African-Americans in the country from the arrival of the first slave ships to the presidency of Barack Obama with impressive economy, supplementing short texts with artifacts such as shackles, a “whites only” sign from a Mississippi diner and Harold Washington posters. Anyone interested in U.S. history will find a visit to this museum worthwhile.
DuSable Museum of African American History
740 East 56th Place. Tel. (773) 947-0600
Founded in 1919, The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago has led important archaeological excavations in the Middle East for decades, and it continues both fieldwork and scholarly endeavors to this day, including compiling dictionaries of ancient Middle Eastern languages. The museum displays an impressive selection of major artifacts in a historic art deco building, making it a destination in itself. Important large-scale pieces include a panel of turquoise-blue glazed bricks from Babylon’s Processional Way depicting a lion, magnificent carved-stone reliefs from the palace of King Sargon II in Khorsabad and a colossal bull’s head from Persepolis. But numerous small objects reward examination as well. I marveled at a little bowl filled with chunks of bread discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb, for example, as well as an extraordinary hexagonal clay prism inscribed with the achievements of an Assyrian king. And a Sumerian tablet documenting a real estate transaction, I noticed, looked just as complicated and indecipherable as today’s paperwork regarding such exchanges. Plus ça change ...
The Oriental Institute
1155 East 58th Street. Tel. (773) 702-9514
The University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art is relatively small, but it displays top-quality exhibitions, including shows drawn from its large permanent collection. On our visit, we saw an exhibition titled Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground, which included diverse paintings from major artists such as surrealist Paul Delvaux and abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. In another section of the room, I was delighted to see impressive works by Kehinde Wiley (painter of President Obama’s official portrait), Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman and Nick Cave. A second show, The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960–1980, displayed notable works by lesser-known local artists. If you’re in Hyde Park, there’s no reason not to pop into the Smart — admission is free — and it took us less than an hour to leisurely explore the exhibitions.
Smart Museum of Art
5550 South Greenwood Avenue. Tel. (773) 702-0200