October 2005

A Day in 'The Field'

An in-house woodshop at The Field Museum builds exhibition cabinetry for permanent and traveling displays.

By Michaelle Bradford
The Field Museum


Chicago, IL


Employees: 40 to 60 (although no more than 10 to 12 work in the shop at the same time)

Shop Size: 300 feet by 25 feet

FYI: Eighty to 90 percent of all woodshop employees have a background in art.

Nestled on the tranquil Museum Campus in Chicago, next to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium, sits The Field Museum.

Its stately, columned entrance faces modern skyscrapers, which pierce the downtown skyline, and Burnham Harbor, filled with luxury sailboats during the summer months. But to step inside the Field is to step back in time - it is a journey to past civilizations and cultures.

Although only approximately 1 percent of the museum's artifacts are on display, one can still get a keen sense of what life must have been like over a lifetime ago through the detailed imagery of each exhibition. In order to provide such accuracy and detail, as well as the appropriate cases for the artifacts, each display is created by the Field's Exhibitions Division, which can be divided into five segments: Production and Maintenance, Graphics, Exhibition Development, Design and Traveling Exhibitions.

Unbeknownst to the millions of visitors who flock to the Field each year, tucked away on the fourth floor overlooking Lakeshore Drive is the production/woodworking shop, that creates all of the woodwork for each permanent and traveling exhibit. Ray Leo, head of exhibition production, says the Exhibition Department, out of which came the original woodshop, was born in the 1970s, but before that, the science discipline personnel would load artifacts in standard display cases.

"This building is filled with old display cases [in which] the science people would install their own artifacts," he says. "That's why a small shop was created to start building [better] displays."

Who Isn't an Artist?

According to John Zehren, woodshop supervisor, the current shop employs anywhere from 40 to 60 people, although there is never more than 10 to 12 working in the shop at one time. Many of the employees have some type of art background, including Zehren, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of the woodshop employees have art degrees, he notes.

The base of the popular "Sue" exhibit, located in Stanley Field Hall, was fabricated by the Field's in-house woodshop.

"I concentrated on sculpture and have virtually no woodworking background. I came from metalworking, doing welding and fabrication," he says.

When Zehren first started working at the Field, he was working in the Interactive shop.

"I was surprised when Ray approached me about applying for the woodshop job. I had a very limited woodworking background, but I figured 'what the heck?,'" Zehren says.

"I think he approached me because he knew I was very comfortable as far as organizing, rebuilding and restructuring things, and I'm very good with equipment," he adds.

Another example of the art-student-turned-woodworker is William Rollins, assistant shop supervisor.

Rollins has a background in painting with a Bachelor in Fine Arts. "I always had an interest in woodworking," he says. "Three generations of my family have been involved in woodworking, and I've always liked the idea of working in a museum. So it brought those two worlds together."

Leo says the diversity of the employees' backgrounds makes the shop better, and he will hire a variety of people if they have some type of training. "I mainly focus on sculpture students, because they most likely have welding or woodworking classroom experience," he says.

Zehren says art students have good problem-solving ability, and they usually are lateral thinkers. "So you put two or three people together with a problem and you would be amazed at the solutions you can get. The sum of the knowledge greatly exceeds everyone's individual knowledge. That's one of the real strengths of this institution."

'How Does That Machine Work?'

With the number of employers who have limited woodworking experience, proper training is essential, which is one of the reasons that all shop machinery is unsophisticated and relatively uncomplicated, Zehren says. Teaching shop employees the basics on something like a table saw allows them to become more versatile, he adds.

"A lot of people would be surprised to know that we, more or less, fly all of our production on very simple machinery and on people's talent," Zehren says. "We just run table saws, bandsaws, routers and planers. We're kind of an 'old school' shop in that respect. It's the type of stuff you would find in a high school woodshop class."

The bench above, located in Stanley Field Hall, was fabricated by John Zehren and the woodshop.

Not only is the shop equipment uncomplicated, but Zehren says that out of necessity it also has to be flexible and portable. As a result, he has created accessories, such as a portable table that is designed of simple parts and will come apart. He has also modified equipment, such as table saws, to make them more flexible and portable.

"We benefit from having the most flexible setup possible. If I have a saw that can go into any one of several places in the shop, that's a much better approach than worrying about if I have a certain type of equipment," Zehren says.

What Are Your Cabinets Made Of?

Due to conservation concerns, artifact-friendly materials are used for the insides of cases. Certain wood products are limited because of off-gassing.

"Ninety to 95 percent of the stuff we fabricate is built with particleboard. Poplar is artifact-friendly. Then we use Medex and exterior-grade medium density fiber core," Zehren says.

There are many materials that the shop can not use because of off-gassing. As a result, the woodshop coordinates with the Conservation Department to make sure all precautions are taken when handling


According to Zehren, the trend now is for museums to be careful with all artifacts, even though there is more flexibility with dinosaur bones because they are basically stone.

"Conservation [personnel] has to be on hand to even move artifacts around," Zehren says. "Part of what they have been doing is suggesting that we start developing new fabrication techniques because it's better for the artifacts. [Conservation] circulates lists of materials we can use - what's good and what isn't," he adds.

A material that Zehren says can be used inside cases is Ethofoam. Also, inert materials, such as acrylics, can be used.

Most cabinet surfaces, like the ones located in the Grainger Hall of Gems, have faux or paint finishes, woodshop supervisor John Zehren says.

But perhaps the most interesting fabricating technique the woodshop is considering is creating the shell of artifact cases from extruded aluminum.

"That's right up my alley, because I love to weld," Zehren says. "The decks [will be] a more dense version of the Ethofoam, which is similar to particleboard, and then they will skin it with thin sheets of aluminum."

Standard materials to avoid using in the interior of artifact cases include oak, pine, fir and mahogany. Other materials that might off-gas include PVC, bubble wrap and certain polyurethanes. Also, oil paint cannot be used on interior cases, Zehren says. "We use water-based lacquers on all interior finishes," he notes.

With these new changes, the biggest challenge for the woodshop will be changing out materials rather than equipment. Zehren says getting past the learning curve, teaching the staff different techniques and getting them used to building with different materials, will take the most time.

"We will probably do a lot of testing and playing around before we start implementing the new procedures," he says.

Chocolate, Anyone?

Possibly one of the "sweetest" displays at the Field was the Chocolate Exhibition, displayed in 2002. It is traveling nationwide and is currently at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Milwaukee, WI.

"It's doing really well," Zehren says. "They are thinking about extending it."

Rollins says this exhibit was one of the most interesting projects he has worked on.

"Everything we made had to be able to come apart and go back together again. We wanted it to look permanent even though it comes apart and travels," he says. "All of the cases are finished front and back. That helps it be versatile. And all of the backs of the cases look like paneling with batten."

Special concern is given to exhibits that travel. Zehren says that the cases have to be structured in a way that they can withstand the rigors of traveling. "Something that isn't going to travel and will stay in-house can be designed a little bit differently. It doesn't have to be as sturdy, so the cabinetry can be a lot different," he says.

What's Next?

The Field recently installed a CRC, a giant collection underground storage space. Zehren says the additional storage will open up more exhibition space. "We will have exhibits put into the [new space] probably in the next five to 10 years. It's a pivotal point for us as a museum where the building is concerned. The scope of our work is starting to change," he says. "So that's going to be exciting for us. There is a lot of stuff we're going to be doing."

To learn more about upcoming exhibits at the Field or sponsorship opportunities, visit www.fieldmuseum.org.



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