Who Knew: The Shedd Aquarium

For years our family has had a museum tradition: we would schedule a visit to a Chicago area museum in celebration of each child's birthday, making sure that we didn't postpone visits to our wonderful and educational local institutions.

But, as the kids grew, parties with peers took precedence and we were lucky to get to a big museum once a year. Now that the kids are older, in high school and middle school, we have begun to feel the pressure of time. Coming too soon are the days when teens will be off on their own pursuits and we will no longer experience Chicago as a foursome. On the other hand, larger kids means that they are completely capable of choosing their own meals, experience exhibits on their own, wander at will, carry their own coats, shop with sound judgment, and no one has to push a stroller. Museum going with older children can be a real pleasure.

Hence, our Labor Day excursion to the Shedd Aquarium, our first family visit in more years that we could count. First impression, the Shedd looks great! Boy, that Mayor Daley gets my vote. The Museum Campus is a far cry from the large buildings isolated by Lake Shore Drive that I remember 25 years ago. The prairie landscaping is first rate, with huge numbers of plants blooming in the end of summer heat. The pathways are open and lovely, and we discovered a new, very cool, children's playground between Soldier Field and the Field Museum. Make a point of looking for it next time you visit and schedule a few minutes for the kids to run and play. Mine were fascinated.

I already knew that it was folly to visit these musuems during the winter holiday break. They are packed to the rafters, filled with many large families who had the bright idea of driving from Michigan or Indiana. There are strollers by the hundreds, wheelchairs by the dozens, and forget about finding a place to sit in the lunchroom. Come to find out that this is true also on Labor Day weekend.

What a place to see the whole world in a building: a young woman in full hijab including facial veil (which was lifted by the end of the day to reveal the bright and cheerful face of a young bride), and multiple languages overheard some of them identifiable and some not. It was sweet to see tiny grandmothers, escorting large families with multiple strollers. A Mennonite family, with the women all in starched white caps, walking near a family with all the men and boys wearing Jewish skullcaps. Sitting near the large coral reef aquarium it was a toss-up to see who was more interesting to watch, the fish or the people. I had to explain to my daughter the concept of "people watching." She got it after I pointing out the tiny grandmother who had distinct Mayan features, next to the perfectly dressed tiny grandmother wearing 22 carat Turkish gold.

But, you already know all of this if you regularly spend any time at Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and any other large Chicago gathering. Do the Indian ladies know how much we envy the beauty of their saris? I swear I'm going to get me one of those.

What you may not know is how much the Shedd has upgraded to reflect the geography of the world in its exhibits. The Wild Reef is really all about the geography of the Philippines. The journey to the Amazon also teaches about the people who live there. The fish and turtles and sharks and lizards are now placed in a context of the whole geography of the world and its peoples. That was delightful.

When the whole family was overwhelmed with the crush of people, I reminded them that often, holidays like Labor Day are the only holidays where every member of a hard working family might have the day off. These are few and far between in our 24/7 culture. We did find seats in the lunchroom, sitting near a group of Indian men who were eating their pizza with knives and forks. Yes, the food is expensive, but also very good with a large range of healthy choices. And we did see the Komodo Dragon lizard hiding in the corner, and the dolphins. However, we have made a vow. No return to the Museum Campus until a snowy Thursday in February. Then we just might be able to see a few more fish.