Due to a host of scheduling issues, it took months for me to finally go to The White City Then and Now tour at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. There was only one tour per month. I was not sure of what to expect from it; the website billed it as “an interactive exploration of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition” with a “3D virtual simulation.” This could have meant anything from a stack of dollhouses to a 3D movie complete with glasses. Fortunately it meant questions, answers, rewards, 3D computer renderings of the Exhibition grounds and an outdoors tour of the museum, the only standing White City building.
The White City Then & Now works because it is set up to put the Columbian Exposition in context. The first fifty minutes of the hour and a half presentation are held in the Little Theatre, roughly the size of a storefront theatre space. The two chipper guides explain the history of the fair, illuminated with on-screen projections and questions to the audience. The projections include a 3D computer-generated rendering of the grounds and architectural spaces. It is an evolving experience that gets updated as more details are discovered. It’s a bit like experiencing the Fair in a first-person video game, but without the firepower. Many of the questions that the guides ask do not have right or wrong answers and encourage the audience to think about how things were similar today, such as: “There was opposition to the Exposition by Chicagoans in the same was that there was opposition to the 2016 Olympic bid. What would be some reasons?” Anyone who offered an answer would get a reward, like an Exhibition sticker or a pack of Juicy Fruit gum.
The gum, like other treats that were available, indicated the lasting effect of the Exposition. Answers were rewarded with Juicy Fruit, which debuted there. Bottled water was provided near the theatre door, and the presentation explained that bottled water was a product that was first sold in park kiosks on the grounds. Bags of Cracker Jack were handed out, more Fair fare.
The group bundled up and walked outside. The guides provided photos of the museum back in the day. By the 1920s, the former Fine Arts Building had fallen into disrepair, its dome covered in graffiti. A campaign raised the money to replicate the exterior in limestone so that the museum would endure. Back inside, we received Fair-themed souvenir postcards, recalling that that the first US Post Office picture postcards commemorated the Fair.
Tickets for The White City Then and Now are available at http://www.msichicago.org/whats-here/tours/white-city. They are $30 for MSI members or $35 for non-member. This is in addition to admission. The tours will be available twice a month throughout 2014.