Chicago's Museum Campus

Chicago is ranked seventh in the Global Cities Index, with important finance, commerce and industry sectors. And the city is also well known for its diverse and vibrant culture. A wide-ranging set of museums – including those on Museum Campus, many of which are also of international significance, add to a heady cultural mix for visitors and locals alike.

The city’s name as we know it today derives from the way in which the first French speaking travellers to the area rendered the Native American word for wild garlic; shikaakwa became chicagoua. At the time of the arrival of the first non-indigenous settlers, the area, known for its abundant wild garlic, was inhabited by the Potawatomi Native American Tribe. In 1795 a military post was set up here, and eight years later the army built Fort Dearborn. But it was not until the Treaty of Chicago signed in 1833 that the Potawatomi were forced to leave their land and the town of Chicago was founded.

None of the archaeology of this early period of the city’s development survives today. For the archaeology traveller there are four museums that have archaeological collections and exhibits, with something from the past from almost every corner of the globe.

If Native American art, from both the north and south, past and present, interests you, there are three museums you should not miss. The Field Museum has an exceptional exhibition of the peopling of the Americas – beginning with the arrival of humans on the continent, and ending with an excellent series of displays of more recent ethnographic and historic artefacts. Just up the road, within walking distance, is the Art Institute of Chicago, it too has both archaeological and ethnographic artefacts on display from both North and South America. Just North of Chicago is the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, although more anthropological than archaeological it is definitely worth a train journey to Evanston.

The Art Institute of Chicago is the second largest art museum in the USA. Not surprisingly, the museum has some fine pieces of Greek and Roman art, but it is the Byzantine collection that offers a more unusual look back at the ancient Mediterranean. The various galleries of Asian art really should not be missed. Southeast Asia, including India and the Himalayas, is very well represented with some truly exquisite religious statuary. The Far East is also well represented with displays of Japanese, Chinese and Korean funerary and religious art.

South of downtown Chicago is the campus of the University of Chicago, and the Oriental Institute with its museum of Near Eastern archaeology. An exceptional museum with some truly spectacular collections from Mesopotamia, Assyria, Anatolia, Persia and Egypt. The colossal statue of King Tutankhamun, the monumental bull’s head and the forty ton sculpture from the Assyrian Palace of Khorsabad alone make the short journey south on the METRA well worth it. Do not let the fact that this is a University museum put you off. Not only does the campus make for a pleasant walk, but the museum caters for everyone, from those with a specialised interest in the area to young children.

Ancient Rome in Chicago

Roman column from Ostia in Rome at Soldier Field in Chicago. © Mina Megalla for Archaeology Travel

Gift from Italy to Chicago.
© Mina Megalla

Besides the obvious neoclassical architecture, of which there are some stunning examples in Chicago, there is also a Roman column from Ostia on a pedestal near the entrance to Soldier Field, the city’s football stadium.

The column was a gift to the city of Chicago from Italy’s Benito Mussolini to commemorate the first transatlantic flight made by the Italian air force. Douglas Boin, an American archaeologist who has researched Ostia, writes about the column here; see also photographs of the transfer of the column from Ostia to Chicago.

Archaeology Museums in Chicago


Chicago Archaeology on the Blog

Of interest …

Chicago Archaeological Society: affiliated to the Illinois Association for Advancement of Archaeology, this organisation hosts monthly meetings and other activities for anyone with an interest in the archaeology of Illinois. [Website]