The Chicago Science and Industry Museum: A Perspective on Electric Rail

By: Yorgo Douramacos

The Museum of science and Industry in Chicago makes a lot of very large phenomena and forces tangible. In one room the rail lines connecting Chicago to Seattle are shrunk down to model size and fit, with incredible detail, into one room.

Museums are meant to instill awe. They exist to strike a sort of cultural tuning note, to let us all know what we should admire or regret about our selves and our shared history. With that in mind one can tell a lot about one’s own culture by noticing what is put in and what is left out of a museum’s collections and displays.

In the Science and Industry Museum’s “Transportation Gallery” there are notable omissions. It is immediately apparent for instance that the automobile is not a concern of the Transportation Gallery. The included vehicles are locomotives of every stage and type. From early primitive steam engines to the iconic iron horses familiar to anyone who’s seen a Western. There are relics of aviation from bi planes to a jet liner.

It would be easy to think the Automobile was left out because it would represent too large a history to include and still have room for these spectacular novelties. I think that there is also a textual reason as well, a message being communicated about what we are meant to find awe-inspiring. The museum seems to require transportation to rise to a larger significance than private ownership in order to qualify as a cultural accomplishment or a point of national pride. We can perhaps find more to fuel our sense of wonder in an 1893 steam locomotive than a Model-T Ford or the first Corvette.

Also included in the display are examples of public transportation from America’s past, and more specifically from Chicago’s past. Because the museum was begun and built in Chicago it necessarily draws a greater portion of its identity and its collections from that area. So when it puts a late 19th century cable car on display it is one that ran on Chicago’s city streets. The same for the horse-drawn street car that sits somewhat neglected and unnoticed among jet fighters and an airliner.

What is not present though is an example of an electric street rail car. At first this seemed odd to me. In every major city in the country the progression went predictably from horse drawn car, to cable car to electric and I knew that Chicago was no different. As I walked around looking to see if I had missed something on the outskirts of the exhibit the answer occurred to me.

The transportation gallery mostly wishes you to marvel at the past, to wonder at the things that have passed away and been improved upon. But in among the miniature city streets of the Chicago portion of the model railroad display are still-running electric rail cars. Unlike the life-size displays, which are evocations of the past, the model railroad is meant as a snapshot of the present. And in Chicago, and cities all around the world, electric rail is as modern and present as any new model automobile.

I was frustrated at first that there was no historic electric rail car on display. But once I understood the message behind its omission I felt better. Electric rail is not a relic of the past and should not be thought of as such. It is a vital and vibrant tool for building the future.