Night at the Museum
Originally founded as the Columbian Museum of Chicago, the city’s Field Museum of Natural History was born in conjunction with the World’s Fair of 1893, the Columbian Exposition, where the city displayed massive collections researchers had gathered into anthropological and biological displays. After the Fair, the collection was moved into the old Palace of Fine Arts—the only Fair building which remains on the old Fairgrounds. In the early 1920s, the museum moved its collections from its exposition site in Jackson Park to its current home on the lakefront, where it fixes one point in the triangle of institutions comprising Chicago’s popular “museum campus”: the Field, the Adler Planetarium, and the Shedd Aquarium, all connected by landscaped pedestrian pathways. With more than 20 million specimens crammed into its many halls and storerooms, the Field has retained, many times magnified, its original power to thrill the audiences that stream through the museum’s exhibits season upon season.
Part of the mystique of the Field can be explained by the cultural diversity of its collections, artifacts dripping with ancient intrigue and reeking of esoterica. Another part can be traced to the army of staff members that toil behind the scenes and around the clock in its countless labs and workrooms. Here, biologists, anthropologists, geologists, and zoologists carry out their research, registering anywhere from uneventful to earth-shattering.
This double-edged intrigue has led to the telling of many tales about Chicago’s Field Museum. When, in 1996, the film The Ghost and the Darkness was released, chronicling the history of the so-called “Man-eaters of Tsavo,” a pair of African lions who killed more than 130 railroad workers in the late nineteenth century, longtime rumors re-surfaced regarding the lions’ carcasses, which have been part of the Field’s collections since the mid-1920s, when they were sold to the museum by Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, who shot the lions in 1898. Patterson, chief engineer of the British government’s project to build a railway bridge over East Africa’s Tsavo River, wrung his hands for nine long months as scores of his men reportedly fell prey to the lions, who were guessed to have resorted to man-eating out of sheer hunger when an outbreak of disease killed off much of their natural prey.
The Lions of Tsavo, now highlighted with a detailed exhibit at the Field, are worthy of the story attributed to their name. Though their taxidermied appearance comes up shy of the lions’ original statures (one measured more than nine and a half feet at the time of death), their dreadful natures still seem nearly tangible. It is not surprising that the legend of the animals, enhanced by the mystique of their African origin and dramatically underscored by their imposing physical presence, has given rise to new stories of strange behavior: peripheral glimpses of movement in the lions’ display case, shifting of the animals’ positions between viewings, their occasional disappearance altogether, and terrifying growls emanating from the exhibit hall.
One archivist at the Field told me in the spring of 1996 that she had seen one of the lions walking through the museum halls while working alone one night. Security guards reportedly called Chicago Police, thinking that a bobcat had somehow gotten into the museum—or perhaps an escapee from the Lincoln Park Zoo. No trace of any live animal was found.
The Field is also home to a piece of a “cursed” meteorite, the Elbogen meteorite that fell to Earth in the 15th century in Loket in the Kingdom of Bohemia, present day Czech Republic. Legend held that the meteorite was in fact a much-maligned count of Loket Castle, located in the current Czech Republic, who had turned to stone after being cursed by a witch and struck by lightning. Citizens and rulers alike maintained such a fear of the object that it was chained up in the dungeon of the castle for generations.
Another of the museum’s permanent exhibits, Inside Ancient Egypt, has also played host to a number of paranormal reports, namely of the sound of screams coming from the rooms housing the mummy displays that, some claim, inspired the film The Relic, an ancient-horror movie set in Chicago’s natural history museum. One mummy in particular, an ancient fellow named Hawra, was reported to occasionally catapult his own sarcophagus off the display stand and onto the floor, several feet away, after coming to live at the museum in.
Security guards were said to discover the movement after investigating a loud, gunshot-like sound that preceded the phenomenon. Though many believe that Hawra took midnight strolls through the museum on the nights when his casket went haywire, few have seen the man behind the mummy in action. Yet, some staff members admit to odd activity around the ancient Egyptian, and employees like Pamela Buczkowske, a circulation clerk at the museum, have their own twilight run-ins with a decidedly Egyptian manifestation in the building’s darkening hallways:
"I had been at the Field Museum for about two years. One eve-ning after closing I was headed back to my office. I had taken the east center staircase down to the ground level. Off to my left was a short hallway I used to get back to where I worked. The hall is all but gone now. A new elevator was installed there, and the Egypt store was housed in that area.
As I walked down the stairs, I was surprised to see what I thought was a visitor coming toward me. Normal closing time was five o’clock; we had been closed for twenty minutes already. What didn’t dawn on me until later was the fact that I could not see the upper body of the person. A shadow covered it at any angle.
I hurried up to the person to tell them that the museum was closed and he or she (I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman) would have to leave. But suddenly, the figure turned into the Egypt exhibit. I was practically on the person’s heels, yet when I entered the exhibit, there was no one there. There wasn’t even the sound of footfalls. I walked around the dark exhibit for a few minutes and found nothing.
Now, there are three ways to get out of the exhibit, and one gets locked at 4:45, on the first floor. The other two are on the ground floor, and I checked them out. One was locked, and the other would have brought the person right to me.
At first, I didn’t really think I saw a ghost, and I wasn’t scared. I did a little bit of investigating and found out a few things that I didn’t realize at that time. One was the lighting. It wasn’t dark enough to cover any part of the person I saw. Two was that the person never even acknowledged my presence. He or she had to have seen me coming toward them. The third thing occurred to me when a guard and I re-enacted what I saw. The lighting was the same and, as I’d suspected, there was no shadow over the upper part of his body.
I could see him perfectly."
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