Wednesday, March 14

It’s been a chilly March with scattered snow flurries during our time in Chicago, so our tour of the Garfield Park Conservatory couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. The moment we shed our winter coats and walked into the humid air of the first room of the conservatory, the palm room, we were transported to a landscape that felt more like escaping into an idyllic scene from a picture book than into a building in the heart of Chicago. And that’s precisely the point: Inspired by Central Park in New York City, Chicago commissioned a series of conservatories around the city in order to bring urban workers in touch with the marvels of nature, in a space that has remained free and open to the public to this day.

Visiting a conservatory might sound like an odd destination for a group studying the humanities, but in fact, the conservatory is a place where history, art, and nature come together in a one-of-a-kind experience. As our tour guide explained to us how conservatories have evolved throughout history, it struck me how a place that once housed groves of orange trees for northern aristocrats to show off to their friends has transformed into a place in which so many passionate people have invested their time and energy. I loved how human art is on display in the form of statues and sculptures, in order to accent the art of nature that hundreds of dedicated staff and volunteers maintain so that it can flourish.

And how fortunate the public is to see the results of their work! Wandering around in these rooms brought such tranquility to replace the usual stress about work. If this were a nature blog, I’d spam the following section with all of the hundred or so pictures I took at the conservatory, because it was just that wondrous of a setting. With any luck, some of the pictures in today’s photo gallery will be able to convey parts of its beauty.

In one sense, spending the morning taking pictures segued nicely into our tour of the Museum of Contemporary Photography. However, it required transitioning from soothing nature scenes to depictions of war and conflict around the world — including Libya, the former Yugoslavia, and Israel and Palestine — that have impacted even those who are not direct victims of the violence. Our tour guide was wonderful in explaining the historical context of these conflicts and also the biographies of the photographers who felt compelled to capture these horrors, whether through realistic or symbolic means. For instance, artist Diana Matar told the story of her father-in-law, who was kidnapped in the 90s for speaking out against Gaddafi’s regime and was never found, by tracing his steps through Libya until the trail finally goes cold.

Other galleries weren’t quite as linear, but each of them still conveyed a powerful story about loss, chaos, and war. As I went through the galleries, I was surprised at how interpreting the pictures became somewhat easier the more we explored the museum. For me, and I’m sure for others as well, it’s a struggle to look beyond the surface level of a photograph. Having the photos in the context of a historical narrative, however, helped to make sense of the deeper, artistic meaning. The political science majors in particular jumped at the chance to view historical events from their classes through this new lens (no pun intended), but everyone in the group still felt the emotional impact of these stories, conveyed through an artistic medium that allows one to see a whole other side of the world through the eyes of a solitary human being.

In a brief window before dinner, we read an article about the parallels between Henrik Ibsen’s play “Enemy of the People” and the Flint Michigan water crisis before heading to see the play at the Goodman Theatre. The play, in which a doctor’s discovery of the town’s toxic water is discredited by the manipulative government, features a main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who harshly criticizes democracy. At a public debate, Stockmann rants that democracy has created a cycle in which an ignorant majority elects leaders who use institutions to brainwash citizens into believing that they have free will. It’s a distressing message to deliver at a time when parts of our country doubt the legitimacy of democratic elections, but I think that it can also have a more positive interpretation: in a country led by the people, we must ensure that we educate as many citizens as possible to be discerning, intellectual people with the ability to lead the nation if called upon. It’s a lofty goal, but as our education system continues to expand and improve, hopefully the dream of an educated population is not too far off.

Sadly, the end of our time here in Chicago is also not too far off, but we’ve had an incredible time so far. Day 4 of 5 is coming soon!

– Rachel McCarthy ’21

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