An industrial museum in Chicago: Rosenwald’s “Museum of Science and Industry”

Posted on January 31st, 2013 by

The Museum of Science and Industry sits near the lakefront on Chicago’s South Side, prominently situated within the beautiful Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Jackson Park. It is the only one of the many large neoclassical structures built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that still stands today. The rest of the buildings in what was known as the “White City” were temporary structures, clad in bright white plaster, but the Palace of Fine Arts was a sturdier building, necessarily fireproofed due to its housing of priceless artworks from around the world. This was fortunate, as a large fire claimed the rest of the White City in 1894, just one year after it was completed.


The “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Palace of Fine Arts visible in right midground
Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum (flickr)

In the early part of the twentieth century, the building served as the temporary home of the Field Museum of Natural History until that museum moved to its permanent location further north along the lakeshore in Grant Park in 1920. It was difficult to find a use for the unoccupied building because of its massive square footage and the necessity of major renovations. The South Park Commission (a governing body over South Side parks) even at one point voted for its demolition. As a Chicago Tribune op-ed put it, “Though a vast structure it is exquisitely graceful. In a state of decay for years, it has been preserved only because no man in authority dared to order it destroyed.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 19. 1926).


Poster advertising the new Museum of Science and Industry
Credit: Work Projects Administration, 1940 (Library of Congress)

As Chicago began preparing to host its second World’s Fair in 1933, the “Century of Progress,” Julius Rosenwald became interested in establishing a permanent “Industrial Museum” in Chicago to showcase America’s history of technological innovation as well as teach the country’s youth about how modern technology works. The former Palace of Fine Arts seemed an obvious location as it had space enough for large-scale exhibits, it was owned by the South Park Commission and its graceful neoclassical architecture conveyed the promise of technology to make possible, as the Tribune put it, “our greater material prosperity and our greater leisure” and transform overcrowded and polluted cities into inspiring and recuperative public spaces. “Housing an industrial museum in the midst of classic refinement impresses us as a recognition of the fact that the machine has brought leisure and with leisure a greater opportunity for the cultivation of beauty than the world has ever known” (Tribune, Aug 19, 1926).


Slide of Daniel Burnham’s “Plan of Chicago,” early example of the “City Beautiful” movement
Photo credit: Penn State Libraries Pictures Collection (flickr)

The White City itself (and the “City Beautiful” movement it helped to spawn) was originally inspired by the beauty and gracefulness of Europe’s public buildings and public infrastructure. Likewise, Rosenwald was inspired by the great industrial museums in Paris, London, Vienna and especially Munich to create the Museum of Science and Industry. Rosenwald first visited Munich’s Deutsches Museum with his son in 1911. Later, in 1926, as he became more and more committed to creating a similar industrial museum in Chicago, Rosenwald went back to Europe with his family. Along the way, he reported to overseas Tribune correspondents about his vision for Chicago’s own museum: “I would like every young growing mind in Chicago to be able to see working models, visualizing developments in machines and processes which have been built by the greatest industrial nation in the world” (Tribune, Apr 17, 1926).

In the 1920s, two other cities in America had industrial museums in the works (Washington D.C. and New York) but with Rosenwald’s dedicated support, Chicago’s was the first to be completed. The process, however, did not go smoothly, and Rosenwald did not see the museum open before he died. Renovations of the building were complex; most of the exterior was to be replaced with limestone and the interior was a totally new design. Money was also an issue. Rosenwald intended the industrial museum to be funded similarly to his other philanthropic projects, that is, his initial large donation of $3 million would “challenge” others to support the cause. However, the Depression severely limited the ability of others in the community to donate to the fledgling museum. Rosenwald provided most of the monetary support, going as far as to personally guarantee the dividends of the flagging Sears stock he had previously donated to the museum.

When the museum was first incorporated as a non-profit organization, it was called the Rosenwald Industrial Museum. Rosenwald strongly disagreed with it bearing his name, and successfully had it changed to the name we know it as today. Although he had provided virtually all of the cash investment necessary to start the museum, he felt that it should be an ongoing public institution and thus not be associated with his family in perpetuity. Rosenwald’s biographer and grandson Peter Ascoli quotes him on this point: “From the very inception of this public project in 1926, I insisted that it should not be named after me… The Museum belongs to the people of Chicago and the nation. Whatever I contributed toward founding the Museum has been in the firm belief that it will play a useful part in our educational, industrial and scientific life. I hope the Museum will enlist the interest and aid of the entire country” (qtd. in Ascoli, 329).

Contemporary photo of the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: Oscar Shen, 2012 (flickr)

Rosenwald’s gifts went largely to the substantial renovations of the building; he hoped that its exhibits and upkeep would come from the public. He outlined his vision of corporate donations to a Tribune reporter in 1926: “America has thousands of these historical old models stored away in research laboratories of many of our great industries. These and specially built working models showing the insides of the workings and why the wheels go around should be assembled together and exhibited in a great museum in Chicago” (Tribune, Apr 17, 1926).


Portrait of Rosenwald in Museum’s boardroom
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, 2011

The Museum of Science and Industry opened in stages. Several exhibits were opened to public during the 1933 World’s Fair, but the formal opening was not until March 7, 1938 (Ascoli, 379). Over its more than seventy years of existence, the museum has stayed remarkably true to its original vision. Permanent exhibits such as the coal mine, the historical airplanes and the U-Boat were all part of Rosenwald’s original concept for the museum. Others, such as the agricultural and train exhibits, were conceived by the original planning committee of the museum before it opened. Although many of the museum’s thousands of visitors likely have no knowledge of Julius Rosenwald, his presence is still felt in the museum. Rosenwald’s portrait hangs in the museum’s boardroom, there is an event and exhibit space called Rosenwald Court, and the museum has organized a “Rosenwald Society” to receive charitable gifts.


Rosenwald Court in the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, 2011

We’ve had two shoots at the Museum of Science and Industry so far for The Rosenwald Schools. Back in 2011, we shot b-roll of the building exterior and Jackson Park. In early December of 2012, we interviewed Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections and also filmed the coal mine exhibit, which is still a favorite at the museum.

By Michael Rose