News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

The Lucas museum brings a vanity project to the lakefront

There's a crucial difference between George Lucas's proposed museum and its predecessors.



Is the Lucas Museum just like the Field, the Shedd, and the Adler? Another great civic institution funded by some guy whose name is on the building?

That's an idea being floated around here. Last month it popped out of a guest panelist's mouth on WTTW's Chicago Tonight. And last week, after news broke that George Lucas had said yes to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's gift of a piece of Chicago lakefront as the museum's home, it popped out of the mayor's mouth too. Part of his press release reads: "Like Marshall Field, John G. Shedd and Max Adler before him, George's philanthropy will inspire and educate for generations."

If we're getting this museum, let's hope it does.

But the comparison doesn't do justice to the dead guys.

If it did, what we'd already have on the lakefront would be three museums celebrating the art of retailing. Maybe with a library of catalogs and a monument to Frango mints.

Because these guys were titans of merchandising: Field and Shedd at Marshall Field and Company, Adler at Sears, Roebuck. They turned shopping into a pastime, catalogs into wish books, and helped build that huge economic engine, the American consumer society. And they employed thousands of Chicagoans.

But they didn't ask the city for a lakefront site on which to showcase their achievements. There wasn't anything that personal about their beneficence. In fact, Marshall Field, whose gift led the way, couldn't have cared less about museums.

A little turn-of-the-century history, from a biography of Field's contemporary, business magnate Edward E. Ayer. Ayer had been stuck by his fellow civic leaders with the job of hounding Field, then the "richest man in town," for a founding donation for a natural history museum. He kept at it for several years, during which Field unfailingly responded like this:

"I don't know anything about a museum and I don't care to know anything about a museum."

Followed by "I'm not going to give you a million dollars."

In the end, he gave that and more. But it wasn't because he had any personal agenda.

The Field, the Shedd, and the Adler are not about Field, Shedd, and Adler.

It was because Ayer, who'd made his own fortune manufacturing railroad ties while rail lines were sprouting all over the country, was one hell of a salesman. He romanced Field with "an opportunity that has been vouchsafed to very few people on earth . . . the privilege of being the educational host to the untold millions of people who will follow us."

And he offered a deal that would have been tempting to any merchant's entrepreneurial spirit: a now-or-never chance to snap up a world-class museum collection for pennies on the dollar. How? By buying up the exhibits that had come to Chicago from all over the globe for the World's Columbian Exposition, which was about to close.

So we have the Field Museum of Natural History because we had the White City. Its name, when it opened in 1894, was the Field Columbian Museum.

John G. Shedd started as a stock boy at Marshall Field and Company, wound up as president, and wanted to give back to the city where he prospered. He followed Field's philanthropic lead by funding the world's first inland aquarium with saltwater exhibits (a million gallons of tropical ocean shipped from Key West by rail), but didn't live to see the Shedd Aquarium open in 1930.

Max Adler, a vice president at Sears, Roebuck and Company (and brother-in-law to Sears head and champion philanthropist Julius Rosenwald), shouldered the entire construction cost for the Adler Planetarium. At its opening, in 1930, he explained his motive for building the first facility of its kind in the western hemisphere: "The planets and the stars are too far removed from general knowledge," he said. Thanks to him, long before Star Wars, Chicago kids had a gateway to distant, but real, galaxies.

So here's the point: the Field, the Shedd, and the Adler are not about Field, Shedd, and Adler.

The Lucas Museum, which is morphing—or perhaps taking shape—before our eyes, is largely an unknown.

Its name, which just a few weeks ago was the Lucas Museum of Cultural Art, is now the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Its holdings, previously described as "unparalleled" and "vast," are suddenly, in the museum's own description, only a "seed" collection.

No inventory is available: beyond Darth Vader costumes, Norman Rockwell paintings, and movie posters, we don't really know what's in it or what it'll take to fill it out.

And we don't know exactly how much money Lucas, in the end, will set aside to build the collection and keep the place going. Earned income projections for the museum, according to the San Francisco proposal, are "incremental."

What we do know is that, at least in part, it's a museum about George Lucas and his franchise, perhaps a history of visual storytelling culminating in Star Wars. That might be OK; a lot of people are excited about it. But—unlike the Field, the Shedd, and the Adler—it's a vanity project.

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