What Does Christmas Have To Do With a Tornado?

After getting a story starter from Kate McGroarty, the Museum of Science and Industry’s roommate for the month, I sniffed out the rest of the story of how one of the focal points of a current major exhibit came to be. I had the extreme pleasure of speaking with Kurt Haunfelner, the Museum’s Vice President of Exhibits and Collections. Here is the story, paraphrased, since I’m not that fast of a typist while listening to a really nice person who is telling a very interesting story.

Besides the fact that I was thrilled as a fan of the Museum to get this backstory, it made me nostalgic for all of the times in my life I’ve ever visited MSI (too many to count), and proud as a Chicagoan that we have this jewel right here in our city. You don’t have to have ever visited MSI to sense the passion that Mr. Haunfelner has for his job. Listening to him on the other end of the line was very inspiring for me.

Here’s what he had to say (paraphrased, remember!):

“In mid-December of 2004, we had started the early conceptual development for what we thought would be a major exhibit on basic science. It was originally to be located on the Grainger Balcony, which is about eight to ten thousand square feet and only sixteen feet from floor to ceiling.

As we discussed ideas, we started to toy with the premise that the core part of the exhibit would be a natural phenomenon of some sort: an avalanche, hurricane, something like that. There was some interest in a tornado, but the balcony location would’ve been an issue because of the lack of height. The West Court was the home of our large, temporary (moving) exhibits, and nothing permanent was planned for that location.

I love to get to the museum early. One day I happened to walk through the rotunda around 6:30 a.m. That year we didn’t have a major show in West Court so we were able to put the Christmas trees (from Christmas Around the World, an annual holiday exhibit made up mostly of international trees) there. The grand, 45-foot tree was standing at the center, and at that moment early in the morning as I looked at it, it occurred to me that it wasn’t a 45-foot Christmas tree: it was a tornado!

I went back to my office. At the time, my lead designer was in New York. I called him to tell him my idea, and he was intrigued. I told him that the main issue was that, to build the exhibit this way, it would take that temporary space away from the museum. I told him to layout the exhibit on the balcony AND in West Court, and that I needed the drawings back very, very quickly, by mid-January.

Next, I had to sell the boss on my idea. I walked down to David’s (Mosena, President of the Museum) office to talk to him, and said, ’I need you to take a walk with me.’ He looked at me oddly but then agreed to go, and off we went. We walked to the rotunda area and I pointed to the tree and said ‘David, that’s not a tree; that’s a 45-foot tornado. What I’m really proposing is that this extraordinary science exhibit we want to do be housed permanently in West Court.’

His reaction was, ‘Well, this is where we do all of our big shows…how will we do that?’ He said he’d consider it after seeing sketches. After two weeks I had the drawings, and I was really excited about them. I took them to David, and we started talking about it internally. Within three months, everyone was behind it.”

(Let me cut in for a sec: Here’s a great video of the Science Storms exhibit:)

(Back to the story:)

“The Science Storms exhibit is very close to the original conceptual drawings! The main difference is that the avalanche feature (which, in the exhibit, is a huge rotating disk; click here for video) in the original illustration begins at the balcony level and comes down to the main floor. It actually looked like a bunny hill, but there was a problem: once the material from the avalanche got to the bottom, how would we get it back up to the top? We had to go in a different direction.”

I want to say thank you SO MUCH to Kurt Haunfelner for his time and for sharing this great story. We talked about the museum in general for a few minutes before hanging up, and discussed the major changes and additions that have been made there in the past couple of years. His voice is full of excitement about the future of MSI, and advised me (and I’m in turn advising YOU!) to stay tuned for what’s to come in the next three years. It’s sure to be more of the greatness that’s been percolating, and I can’t wait to see!

©2010 Suburban Scrawl

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