The museum in "Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England" is no stately edifice adorning a public park, no shimmering repository of great artifacts.
The collection in the play's Pratt Museum — on the campus of a Massachusetts college and onstage at Theater Wit in Chicago — includes the prehistoric beasts of the title, remarkable dioramas depicting Early Man and, as a character in Madeleine George's play says, "a couple of old ribs and tusks. Chunks of schist."
"Small, bizarre, poorly lit (and) haphazardly organized," it is, the character says later, "the curio cabinet of a deranged giant." But what the Pratt has also collected and created over its years, it turns out, is vaults stuffed with affectionate memories.
When the university announces plans to close the dusty place to make way for a new dormitory that will meet contemporary student demand for "Ethernet jacks closer and closer to the head of the bed," town and gown factions alike rally to its defense, and the play has its propulsive element.
"The museum is both this kind of catalyst and this metaphor for everything that happens," said Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, which recently extended the play through May 17. "We have all these deep attachments to these places and institutions that are entwined with our own sense of place and self."
Like, I suspect, almost every reader of this paper, I've been going to museums my whole life: shepherded by teachers and by parents, bringing dates to demonstrate how civilized I was and then, after one of those dates worked out really well, bringing toddlers and now teenagers to pass on how civilized they should be. For the past few years, I've seen Chicago's cultural temples from a much more intimate perspective, covering the city's museums for the Tribune.
And, still, George's witty, wise play, made me think anew about these institutions. Describing the work as "an off-kilter love letter to obsolete things," the playwright said (via email) that she wanted to explore how "museums come to contain histories other than the ones they were built to house. ... A museum says, 'Come to the museum to be educated!' but young people, in particular, may say back, 'I'm going to the museum to make out with my boyfriend!'"
Chicago has not in recent memory had a museum-closing controversy like the one George stages in "Seven Homeless Mammoths," although there are certainly people, Wechsler included, who still miss the old Chicago Academy of Sciences.
In putting on the play, "that's what I really thought about," Wechsler said, remembering it as "a really weird, eclectic collection" with an "old Victorian cabinets-of-wonder kind of quality."
But in New York, there is a kind of real-life analog to the play, where an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art has displaced the American Museum of Folk Art from an architecturally significant building. I won't go on about my own fond memories of the highly charming folk museum.
Neither that place not the Chicago museums I frequent are anything like the play's Pratt. But watching the show, I couldn't help but think of, say, the "Yesterday's Main Street" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. It's an odd collection of old-timey storefronts, not really germane to the museum's mission.
Yet when I included it on a list of "worst museum exhibits" — in an article meant to be amusingly over-the-top in its criticisms — I learned that I was roasting a sacred cow. "Yesterday's Main Street" is a favorite place of a whole lot of people, very few of whom appreciated me writing this: "While the dimness and cobblestones are meant to suggest Ye Olde Streetscape, more than anything you feel as though you're about to be pounced upon by Jack the Ripper."
And the letters of support for that exhibit — anachronistic in my eyes, adored in others' — made me realize the MSI will probably never dare to remove that exhibit, even if it wanted to.
Some of that feeling, of nostalgia trumping logic or utility, is what George is after in the play.
Debra Kerr, a local museum consultant and former Shedd Aquarium executive vice president, said she saw "Seven Homeless Mammoths" and was reminded of a situation at the Shedd.
"I got a lot of chuckles out of these people wanting to protest the demise of the museum because it had personal meaning to them," said Kerr, whose business, YouthMuse, helps the cultural sector engage teenagers.
"At the Shedd we had an exhibit called the Tributaries exhibit," she said, describing it as looking a little like a home aquarium collection that had little relevance to the contemporary Shedd's message of conservation in the natural world.
"On any given day, you'd go in and you'd be the only person in there," she said. Yet "when we took that exhibit out, people were so outraged because they had a memory of it."
A lesson of the play, in her mind, is that museums, to remain relevant, need to be willing to meet visitors where they live and feel, rather than insisting on an educational mission or a strictly top-down presentation. And they need to be willing to embrace their role as public spaces and de facto community centers.
"Some of the traditional art and history museums are having trouble moving beyond the notion of, 'It's an institution where I will be edifiied in some way,'" she said.
The demise of the Pratt in the play, Kerr said, "was in effect sparking, poignantly, community dialogue and community togetherness."
The playwright said she grew up with fond memories of an actual Pratt Museum, at Amherst College in western Massachusetts. "It was full of awesome artifacts (giant great-white-shark jaw suspended in the stairwell, T. rex head, petrified tree stump, complete stegosaurus, etc.)," she said, "but it had a kind of forgotten quality ... and it gave off the vibe of being cumulatively curated ... added to over the decades but never reorganized or updated. It smelled like dust and formaldehyde. I loved it there and used to go whenever I could as a kid.
"In my 30s, when I heard that they were moving the museum's contents to a shiny new building and turning the old building into a dorm, I felt heartbroken. I had fantasies of going back to my hometown and chaining myself to the doors to keep them from shutting the place down."
Those fantasies, instead, gave rise to "Seven Homeless Mammoths." The story at the center is a human triangle incorporating a college dean and her current and former lovers. Indeed, the subtitle is "An Academic Sex Comedy." But the museum closing, a decision in which the dean is intimately involved, is much of what forces the characters to change and grow and see one another anew.
Along the way, there's a caretaker character reading aloud letters to the editor and local newspaper accounts about the sudden controversy over the museum closing.
One writer takes issue with the college calling the Pratt unprofitable and out-of-date. "The museum features the skeletons of prehistoric creatures and arrowheads from extinct tribes. These things are by definition out of date," the writer says.
Another calls the place a "small but beloved treasure trove of rare prehistoric skeletons, local geological wonders, and dioramas depicting the daily lives of the people who lived peaceably on this land, in harmony with its natural rhythms, before their civilization was exterminated by our own."
In a bit of script craft that probably shouldn't work but does, wonderfully, the characters in the prehistoric-people dioramas come to life. Described by the dean as "a series of highly questionable dioramas of australopithecines going about their daily business dressed like extras from 'Staying Alive,'" they parrot back fragments of the conversations that have taken place in front of them over the years — including a conversation between the dean and her ex in the early days of their courtship.
And in so doing, they underscore an essential theme of the play, George said: "Young people who don't have access to private space end up seeking out the dark corners of public institutions (museums, libraries, parks) for their first forays into illicit activity, and I love that contrast between what a museum says it's for and what it ends up being used for. That's why I included the goofy talking dioramas in my play — they're painfully historically inaccurate, and they speak in the voices of the college students they've witnessed over the years who have come to the museum for the kind of education you can't get from looking at wall text, as it were.
"Since this play was first produced, a surprising number of people have come up to me and told me stories of a first kiss on a school field trip to the American Museum of Natural History, or a first acid trip in an art museum. We're forever creating new stories in these institutions built to tell our old stories. I love that about human beings."
In other words, we can turn yesterday's main street, wherever it may be located and in whatever format, into a stop on today's memory lane. And even those of us who know better, who've thought deeply about such issues, aren't in a rush to challenge such memories.
Said the playwright: "Although I understand that the new Pratt is fantastic and much better suited to showing off their collection, I haven't been able to bring myself to visit it."