Day at the museum

“Rawr! Get back to work, Cass!”

The most cherished experiences I’ve had as a journalist are the ones that were entirely unplanned. This week was no different.

I went to The Field Museum the other day to interview a curator about his research on a Neolithic settlement in Greece. After our conversation, he offered to show me the special collections — the miles of unseen, temperature-controlled underground storage that house 95 percent of the museum’s artifacts.

Needless to say, this science lover (me) wholeheartedly obliged.

We descended* several flights of stairs and passed through heavy, bank-vault style doors into the depths of the museum’s treasury.

Hundreds of shelves bore artifacts from every century and region of human history. I passed through aisles of Mesopotamian sculpture, Ancient Incan ceramics and Egyptian canoptic jars.

The artifacts were meticulously labeled, sorted and bar-coded. The Field teaches this cataloging and maintenance system to museums worldwide so that countries can carefully house artifacts in their countries of origin. Iraq is trying to accumulate and display lost artifacts that were looted during the war.

The curator pulled out a smooth black rock from a cardboard box.

“This is a hand axe from homo erectus found in Africa. It’s about 1.3 million years old,” he said.

I felt a chill. That teardrop-shaped stone pierced me. It was the oldest man-made object I had ever seen face-to-face. That meeting was breathtaking – that small stone put the immensity of time and human life into perspective.

We walked back up to the natural light of the museum, and in the back of my mind, I heard myself ask, “What will I contribute to the world?”

I thanked the curator and drifted through the museum’s main floor. Past glass displays, flocks of summer camp kids and a towering tyrannosaurus.

In the few hours I was in the museum that morning, I learned about one man’s research and his passion for science. I got the rare chance to step in archeologist’s boots and observed centuries of human craftsmanship, just by walking through a few aisles of shelves.

That palm-sized stone was a startling wake-up call. Life is short, and I want to leave behind my own artifact.

* I’m sensing a theme here, why do I encounter all of the city’s gems underground?

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