‘The Ships Gallery’ at MSI Explores the Evolution of Boat Design

(J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)(J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

From ancient trading boats to luxury cruises, ships have played an important and ever-changing role throughout the course of human history. A new exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry invites visitors to sail though time and explore the evolution of ship design.

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“The Ships Gallery” features 43 scale models depicting the real-life designs of ships throughout time – from Venetian boats built in A.D. 1200 to modern-day racing catamarans. Many of the models on display were built before 1933, when the museum opened and began amassing its nautical collection.  

John Llewellyn, project lead at MSI, says the new gallery is a redesign of the museum’s 1964 exhibition “Ships Throughout the Ages.” In January 2015, the museum began the process of refurbishing the vintage models while adding more to the collection. Evanston-based art restoration service Litas Liparini was tasked with conserving and renovating the ships. The oldest model featured in the gallery dates back to 1888 and depicts the early ocean liner the City of New York.

“These ships have been sitting in cases for 50 or more years so they were in need of a rehab,” said Llewellyn. “They’ve stood the test of time, but we’ve changed the storyline, added graphics, and improved the lighting.”

The 4,000-square-foot gallery now features 15 newly exhibited models, 10 of which were custom designed and commissioned by professional makers. The collection also includes models built by local hobbyists. Many of the older artifacts, according to Llewellyn, were donated by shipping companies and the Italian government during the 1930s.

  • The museum decided in January 2015 to renovate the “Ships Gallery” exhibit space and conserve all of its model ships. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

    The museum decided in January 2015 to renovate the “Ships Gallery” exhibit space and conserve all of its model ships. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

  • The models were moved into a private conservation space, where the historic ships were restored to their former glory. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

    The models were moved into a private conservation space, where the historic ships were restored to their former glory. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

  • (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

    (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

  • (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

    (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

  • (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

    (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry)

As part of the adapted storyline, the model ships are organized in the following thematic categories:

Exploring the unknown: Iconic ships from the world’s great explorations. The collection includes models of the Mayflower, Christopher Columbus’ fleet and polar research ships and ocuses on science and discovery.

Gaining access to riches: A look at the arrival of steam ships and their influence on trade. “The sailing ships were prevalent, then the steam ships started shipping things all across the world and it changed the world,” Llewellyn explained. “You start with exploration then you transition to this early age of commerce and see this evolution.”

Institution of travel: A collection of ocean liners and a historical exploration of how cruise companies have competed over speed and luxury.

The global circulatory system: A present-day look at international shipping, commerce and how large container ships paved the way for global trade. “Of the personal belongings you use every day, how many miles did they have to travel?” Llewelyn asks. “Chances are it was carried on a ship at some point and we want to make that connection for people.”

Sport and challenge (new exhibit): Building on the America’s Cup event in Chicago last June, this section features models that represent modern day, high-speed racing boats with carbon fiber catamarans.

All hands on deck: An interactive, large-scale ship’s deck that invites visitors to hop aboard and learn about the science behind boat operation. “Even adults will jump up on the deck and shout out orders and turn the wheel,” Llewellyn said.

“The Ships Gallery” is located on the lower level of the Museum of Science and Industry. Tickets include general admission, and cost $18; $13 for kids ages 3 to 11. For more information, visit the museum's website.

Follow Reuben Unrau on Twitter: @reubenunrau


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