A Visitor's Experience: The Art Institute of Chicago
An article by Sean A. Flynt

George F. Harding, Jr. (1868-1939) was a prominent Chicago businessman and political figure with a passion for collecting fine art and artifacts. Between the world wars he assembled one of the finest collections of arms and armour in the U.S. and housed it in a purpose-built castle that was a Chicago landmark until its destruction in 1965. The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) rescued Harding's collection from storage in 1982, and Harding's arms and armour have since become one of the museum's most popular attractions.

The AIC isn't able to display all 1,500 items in the Harding arms and armour collection, of course, and ongoing construction of a new museum building has further squeezed the Harding exhibit. The new building, due to open in 2009, is expected to give the exhibit more space, but for now approximately 225 items from the Harding collection are on permanent display in the museum's Gunsaulus Hall. There you'll find several dozen arms, 10 or so armours, many fine helmets (especially later forms) and isolated items of armour and accoutrement. All the objects are well preserved and of exceptional quality and beauty, and represent a cross-section of fine arms and armour dating primarily from the 15th through 17th centuries.


Visiting the Art Institute of Chicago
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The entrance
A weeklong visit to Chicago in March allowed me to visit the Art Institute and devote special attention to the Harding collection. Fortunately, the museum is near the heart of Chicago's tourist district and within walking distance of many other museums, hotels and fine restaurants.

At the time of this writing, admission to the museum is $12 for adults and $7 for students, seniors (65+) and children over the age of 12. Younger children enter for free, and sponsorship by Ford Motor Company allows the museum to open for free to all visitors on Thursday and Friday evenings from 5:00-9:00pm.

The Art Institute is open Monday through Wednesday from 10:30am–5:00pm, Thursday and Friday from 10:30am–9:00pm. and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am–5:00pm. The museum is closed only on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas day, and New Year's Day.

Be sure to double-check the museum's opening times before you visit. Even in late March, Chicago's notorious wind will freeze you down to your bones if you have to wait with the famous bronze Guardian lions on the museum's steps.


Viewing the Collection
Most of the Harding collection’s items on display are presented in well-lit cabinets and are positioned close to the viewer. The full armours are freestanding in glass cases and may be viewed in the round. This is an especially welcome feature for students of armour as even minor details of construction and decoration are readily viewed.

All of the Harding collection displays are clearly visible to children, and the museum offers a free illustrated brochure for young visitors. On Guard! The Art of Arms and Armor explains arms and armour terminology, points out key items in the collection and relates the items to the AIC's fine art holdings. The brochure also includes a bibliography of age-appropriate arms and armour books, all of which are available for viewing in the museum's Family Room.
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Although the Harding exhibit can offer only so much depth, it makes a welcome attempt at breadth, representing many weapon types with a single fine example for each. Although an experienced student may wish the exhibit included more examples of a particular weapon type, the average visitor gets a good introduction to the great variety of historic European weapon types—swords, rapiers, maces, hafted weapons, combination weapons, daggers, firearms, etc.

Of all the wonderful arms on display, my favorite was the 16th century German thrusting sword (estoc, tuck, stocco, panzerstecher) shown below. This is an especially graceful and attractive weapon, with its unusual "U" shaped pommel, decorated bottle-shaped grip and long, slender blade.
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The collection is especially rich in 16th century armour. Although my tastes tend more toward the utilitarian, I couldn't help but admire the artistry evident in many of the collection's samples, particularly the etched and gilt northern Italian and German armours. Even so, my favorite armour pieces were the more understated burgonets and German plate armours.


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A gilded axe

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The AIC in print
Other Things of Note
As impressive as the Harding exhibit is, I was most encouraged by the interest of the young people—grade school through college—who passed through Gunsaulus Hall in a continuous stream. Many of them were captivated by the arms and armour and discussed with their friends details of construction and decoration. Admiring a German "black and white" armour and reading the accompanying plaque, a young woman remarked, "...'made in Germany,' it figures". Clearly, she was fitting the armour into what she already knew about German culture, art or technology.

Another group of college-age students discussed the display of weapons. "Which one would you want in a fight," one asked, leading to an intelligent, if speculative, discussion of how the weapons would be used. A group of young boys debated whether an axe was "made of gold" or just "painted" (for the record, it's gilt steel—see the photo).

Throughout the exhibit, young and old alike marveled at the artistry and ingenuity of medieval and renaissance craftsmen, proving the museum's claim about the popularity of the exhibit. I was especially surprised, then, to learn that the museum's book about the Harding collection—Arms and Armor in the Art Institute of Chicago (Karcheski)—has been out of print since 1995. Fortunately, excellent and affordable copies of the book are available on the used book market for as little as $12. Its detailed color photographs, expert commentary and historical artwork illuminate the collection's most important items.

If you plan to visit the AIC, be sure to check the museum's online schedule of Gallery Talks. These expert lectures sometimes feature items from the Harding collection and could make for an even more rewarding museum experience.


Conclusion
The Art Institute of Chicago should be on the must-see list of anyone visiting Chicago, but the Harding collection makes it a special treat for students of arms and armour. And although it might be tempting to complain about the reduction of a 1,500-item collection to a 225-item exhibit, the AIC deserves praise for acquiring the collection in the first place and giving its treasures such a prominent position in the museum. And, of course, we can only hope that the museum's expansion will bring more of the collection into public view in coming years.





About the Author
Sean Flynt is a public relations professional in Birmingham, Alabama. He is interested in the martial culture of all periods and people but focuses on 1450-1650, with special interest in German and Austrian arms and armour.

Acknowledgements
Photographer: Sean Flynt

 










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