#894: A Fly in Amber

February 26th, 2018

She seemed surprised to see us. I don’t blame her for that. The guest book, checked later, revealed there had been about five visitors the whole month.

The place seemed empty from the outside. Our only greeter along the stretch of Pulaski where the chains don’t have interest in setting up shop was a shaggy old blonde man walking by with a guitar. He asked if Jesus was our lord and savior. I lied and said he was. A small sign told an equal lie, adding to our real destination that we were about to enter the ward offices of the alderman who just got in trouble for covering up his brother being pervy at a female consultant.

In reality, Ald. Quinn works two-and-a-half miles away, nestled safe in the bosom of a shared office space with House Speaker Mike Madigan. The fire escape route map on the inside of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture doesn’t even list space for a ward office.

The woman in the gift shop seemed surprised to see us, but she processed the admission fee accordingly. She smiled and told us there was more on the third floor. And then she let us into 17,000 years.

There were stone axes and hand-chipped arrowheads going back 6,000-15,000 BCE. There were medieval swords, Napoleonic portraits, heraldry lining every scrap of wall that wasn’t about Soviet occupation. One glass case would have Bibles dating to the 1600s, the next would have tins of 1940s ham and pork liver with a written brief discussing Baltic lunchmeat production. Underground newspapers for the Resistance. An entire table replaying 1410′s Battle of Tannenberg where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania paired with the Kingdom of Poland to destroy the Teutonic Knights. A display of hollowed and punctured Easter eggs with a bio of the Canadian-Lithuanian artist who died in 2007. A library off to the side I assume was for genealogical research but the gift shop woman only had the English to repeat “Is library and archive.” A mock fairy tale village closed for renovation. A surprisingly modern third-floor exhibit on post-war Displaced Persons camps.

And amber. Prehistoric amber beads the peer of stone arrowheads. Necklaces and baubles sneaked from the Soviets. A novelty amber-and-wire bird fella with glasses reeking of 1960s Americana when a wedding meant a spiky šakotis cake and too many Kalnapilis in the Amber Room ballroom one floor up.

“While amber has appeared naturally in various parts of the world it is well recognized that Baltic Amber is the oldest and most valued of all,” says an article entitled “Amber – gold of the Baltic Sea” sitting in a plastic case between prehistoric beads and a wooden chest hand-carved in a Nazi concentration camp.

Amber, ancient pine tree resin buried and fossilized, sometimes over a Jurassic Park-worth of ancient insect, can be shaken loose by sea currents to wash up on the shores of the Baltic.

In this case the rich, beautiful, frozen-honey tears didn’t make a Jurassic Park. The only tourist attraction they mustered was a small museum on a stretch of Pulaski that the guest book says maybe five, six people had visited the entire month.

There’s an Irish heritage center in Irving Park, a Polish museum in Noble Square. A Ukrainian art museum in Ukie Village. I’ve drunk beer with the Swedes in Andersonville, strolled among Mexican art in Pilsen, watched a robot Harold Washington tell his tale in Washington Park. I live a stone’s throw from a German cultural center and a Filipino one.

I visit these places when I can, wonder what it would be like to be in their target demographic. I wonder about when these were rich societies, the gateway to services for new immigrants looking to their community to set up shop in America. I wonder when a cultural center becomes a history museum, when they stop hosting traditional weddings and start being libraries for the curious genealogist or places to tell the kids about your people’s past struggles in a surprisingly modern exhibit on the third floor.

Modernity fights identity. You can’t be a sleek, future-facing outfit without sacrificing some of the knobbly bits. 17,000 years of swords, ham and amber slammed together in glass cases is old and weird. It’s a charming relic only five have gone to this month.

I want this place to live and grow. I want it to thrive and be a useful, modern community center even the alderman who claims an office there would want to stop by. But can you do that without sacrificing the beautiful insanity of a museum that considers Resistance newsletters, the Battle of Tannenberg and Lithuanian pork tins on par?

I don’t want this place to be a charming relic trapped in the past, as preserved, beautiful and useless as, well, you read the story’s title.

Visit the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture

Learn about the alderman whose office is sorta maybe not really there

Meet that Harold robot

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