Kawai’s Guide to Chicago Museums


The Chicago Public Library Foundation, as seen from Millenium Park

I’ve been in and out of Chicago a fair bit as of late and thought I’d recommend some museums I’ve enjoyed there. But first, to share my impressions of the city and my travel philosophy.

Whenever I travel to a new city, my absolute favourite thing to do is to wander the streets aimlessly and observe. I’ve never understood the style of travel where you hit up a city for under a week, pack your itinerary full of “must see” sites and leave with a gazillion photos. If you want to understand the soul of a city, you need to have a lot of idle time. Get out of the downtown/tourist areas. Take public transit at different times of the day and on different days. Visit (or at least, peer into) quotidian places like grocery stores, markets, banks, libraries, gyms, etc. If it’s cold out, park your ass in a lazy cafe overlooking a busy street and people watch. If it’s warm, visit a park. Eat everything from the street meat to the city’s finest dining establishments. Educate yourself on municipal affairs like infrastructure, education boards, healthcare. Read the free weeklies: they will give you greater insight into local issues, concerns and attitudes. Note how strangers interact with each other on the streets: how they walk/bike/drive, respond to unexpected delays, react when you ask for directions.


Art Deco buildings populate Michigan Street and much of The Loop, making you feel like you’ve stepped into the pages of a Seth cartoon

The vibe I get in Chicago is that it is a hard city. People like to descibe New York this way, but that has not been my experience. To me, New York feels frenetic, highly driven, wide open. Chicago has a harder edge to it. That’s not to say that hard is a bad thing. Chicago is the city that gave us the relentless beats of house music and the alt-rock scene that birthed The Smashing Pumpkins, Ministry, Veruca Salt and other hardcore descendants.

Chicago’s hardness though, is not particularly friendly. Of course, I’ve met friendly people there, but when you’re out on the streets, those magnificent, old stony skyscrapers can also feel imposing in a way that I’ve never felt in other large cities. Maybe it’s all that gorgeous, towering Art Deco influence. It’s not just me. An article in an issue of the Chicago Reader I picked up described The Loop as “calcified.” The city’s colder temperatures and long history with crime are also a part of the hardness – but its correlate of immense wealth plays a role too. When you step out onto the Magnificent Mile and inhale deeply, you can practically smell the concentration of old capital. And old capital must have its culture and entertainment. Which means, among other things, well funded museums…

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA)


Vesica Pisces at MCA

I love visiting contemporary art museums when I travel. They’re a little more risk taking than the historical art museums but larger than independent galleries so that you can spend a few hours seeing a number of exhibits (and of course, they have enough money to command beautiful venues). Plus, with contemporary art museums, there’s always the chance you will experience that rare thrill of being moved by art made by someone new, someone you’ve never heard of.


An Alexander Calder mobile at MCA

I first visited the MCA when I was a teenager. I still remember the exhibit I saw which featured a giant throw blanket with a swirling pattern sewn into the cloth with human hair. It managed to simultaneously impart beauty, familiarity and fetidness (think: hair in a shower drain, arranged prettily). If you can still vividly remember an exhibit many years after seeing it, it’s a good sign. For something more current, you can read my report on one of MCA’s exhibits, featuring the works of Lilli Carré.

MCA also appears to be very interested in comics. In addition to the Carré exhibit, they had a comics jam piece by a Chicago based comics collective, Trubble Club.


Vitreous Humor, 2013

MCA is located in the Gold Coast, just east of Chicago station on the Red Line and is free on Tuesdays.

Field Museum

Field Museum

Ran out of room in my sketchbook

Taxidermy, taxidermy, taxidermy. If you’re like me and can imagine nothing more enjoyable than spending a rainy day drawing dead animals, the Field Museum, aka Taxidermy Heaven, is worth the $18 basic admission fee. Expect to be greeted with cavernous halls of the flora and fauna from all over the world. Skulls and bones of all shapes and sizes. It’s utterly delightful. Located just east of Roosevelt station on the Red Line.

Leather Archives & Museum (LAM)


Naughty mural by Etienne

The only museum of its kind in the US, LAM houses multiple exhibits pertaining to the American leather community with equal parts art and artefact. The closest institution one might find in Toronto to LAM would probably be the Canadian Lesbian+Gay Archives.


In case you can’t make out the print, the top left card is a membership card to The Lesbian Sex Mafia.

I can only describe LAM as a research gem. For many people, the advent of the internet ushered in an entirely different era in leather. LAM however, displays the rich and complex traditions and practices of subcultural communities related to leather that began and still continue in the offline world today.


Don’t we all love a man who knows his place?

In addition to its exhibits, LAM maintains a non-circulating library, a truly wonderful space with hard to find monographs, reams of pulp fiction, a wide array of periodicals and even a comics collection (Japanese language copies of Tagame manga available!). The periodicals are really most impressive, with roughly 12,000 magazines and over 100 journals.

LAM is an easy walk away from Loyola station on the Red Line. I will add that this is not the wisest neighbourhood to roam about aimlessly at night. Rogers Park is not Chicago’s most dangerous neighbourhood and its crime rate has improved in recent months, but it’s not the city’s safest area.



Suka Off, 2013

DEFIBRILLATOR is not a museum, but a performance art gallery that cultivates shows that explore modernity and corporeality. Think Viennese Actionism, body art, that kind of thing. You can read my report on one of its shows last year. Located in my favourite Chi-town neighbourhood, Wicker Park, this gallery is located west of Division station on the Blue Line.

Coming up: Kawai’s Guide to Wicker Park