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The Field Museum is a “Solar School” in Chicago

We learn all the time. Even if we walked around and tried to deliberately avoid learning anything new, it would be difficult. Of course, a school is one of our primary learning centers and because we want people to learn about solar energy, we have a number of solar schools including a large number throughout Illinois and quite a few in Chicago. And I do mean a formal school building with solar electricity attached to the building or on school grounds meaning “solar + school = solar school.” But we also have a number of non-school learning centers to which solar energy is also attached. One of these non-school “solar schools” is the Field Museum along Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. There is a large solar array on the roof and it generates electricity that flows into the museum to help power the lights and the heating and air conditioning systems. And there are now plans to use the solar electricity system to help educate visitors to the museum. That is why I call it a non-school “solar school.”

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First, some background on the Field Museum itself:

Founding

The Field Museum was incorporated in the State of Illinois on September 16, 1893 as the Columbian Museum of Chicago with its purpose the “accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history.” In 1905, the Museum’s name was changed to Field Museum of Natural History to honor the Museum’s first major benefactor, Marshall Field, and to better reflect its focus on the natural sciences. In 1921 the Museum moved from its original location in Jackson Park to its present site on Chicago Park District property near downtown where it is part of a lakefront Museum Campus that includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. These three institutions are regarded as among the finest of their kind in the world and together attract more visits annually than any comparable site in Chicago.

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Collections

The Field Museum was founded to house the biological and anthropological collections assembled for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. These objects form the core of the Museum’s collections which have grown through world-wide expeditions, exchange, purchase, and gifts to more than twenty million specimens. The collections form the foundation of the Museum’s exhibition, research and education programs, which are further informed by a world-class natural history library of more than 250,000 volumes.

Public Learning

As an educational institution the Field Museum offers multiple opportunities for both informal and more structured public learning. Exhibits remain the primary means of informal education, but throughout its history the Museum has supplemented this approach with innovative educational programs. The Harris Loan Program, for example, begun in 1912, provides educational outreach to children, bringing artifacts, specimens, audiovisual materials, and activity kits to Chicago area schools. The Department of Education, begun in 1922, offers a changing program of classes, lectures, field trips, museum overnights and special events for families, adults and children. Professional symposia and lectures, such as the annual A. Watson Armour III Spring Symposium, presents the latest scientific results to the international scientific community as well as the public at large.

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Research

The Museum’s curatorial and scientific staff in the departments of Anthropology, Biology, Geology, and Zoology conducts basic research in the fields of systematic biology and anthropology, and also has responsibility for collections management, and collaboration in public programs with the Departments of Education and Exhibits. Since its founding the Field Museum has been an international leader in evolutionary biology and paleontology, and archaeology and ethnography, and has long maintained close links, including joint teaching, students, seminars, with local universities – particularly the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Next, some information about the solar array on the roof of the Field Museum:

It is important to note that there are two sides to a place like the Field Museum. There is the Visitor Side or the front part that visitors to the Museum see and there are the exhibits the visitors see and there are restaurants and restrooms and ticket takers and guards and a whole group of people making sure that your visit to the Museum is a positive one. You also learn a lot about natural history and right now you would learn a lot about diamonds. Then there is the back part of the Museum or the Administration Side. This is where the research is taking place and new exhibits are being planned and built and it is also where the heating, air conditioning, ventilation system, lights, and the people who administer the Museum work and spend their days. The Field Museum is more than 1.3 million square feet and just the natural gas and electricity bills exceed $2.5 million per year. That means it is more than $200,000 per month just to heat, cool, and light the Museum. So a few years ago, the Field agreed to a solar electricity array on its roof. This array does save the museum a little bit of money on its electricity bill, but more importantly it is way for the Museum staff to learn about solar energy and soon to take what it has learned and share it with the visitors to the Museum. The Field is going to use what it learned on the Administration Side of the Museum to help expand its educational outreach on the Visitor Side of the Museum. We applaud the Field for having a fantastic museum and for helping educate the City of Chicago and much of Illinois and Indiana and Michigan and Wisconsin about solar energy.

The Field Museum has a page on the Illinois Solar Schools web site, including a link to its solar electricity data. Carter O’Brien is our contact at the Field. He can be reached at cobrien@fieldmuseum.org.

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