She may be 42,000 years old, but she still has all her skin, some hair, and both nostrils at the end of her trunk. Her name is Lyuba, and she’s the best-preserved woolly mammoth specimen known to man. I first met her in a Connecticut airport, where her story kept me company through the pages of National Geographic as I waited for my plane to arrive. The Russian reindeer herder who stumbled upon her in May 2007 named her after his wife (Lyuba means “love” in Russian). Experts believe that during the Pleistocene, Lyuba fell into a river and choked on sediment—a tragic death that proved fortunate for science, since the clay she swallowed pickled her body and the following permafrost completed the mummification process. Nature may be cruel, but natural history’s an optimist.
I met her again last week when I took a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum. In the time since our first “encounter,” I had changed more than she had; paleontologists did their careful poking, prodding, and CT scanning, but still Lyuba persevered, her gait looking more like a baby elephant’s sprightly trot than a death pose. Now, encased in glass instead of permafrost, she sits as the crown jewel of the museum’s Mammoths and Mastodons display. This special exhibit begins with a video that creatively re-imagines Chicago’s history by opening with a still frame of the present day and rewinding to the age of the mammoths. After the video, visitors can explore the family tree of Proboscidea or try to lift the weight of a mammoth’s lunch. Each component of the exhibit wowed me, but every ten minutes, I traced my steps back to Lyuba. I know she’s not smiling, but I can’t help but misread her curled lips. Explain it away as decomposition, or the sediment’s forcing open of her mouth, or the human impulse to anthropomorphize—there’s still a certain happiness to this newborn who came to a swift end but survived to tell the story forty millennia later.
A self-proclaimed natural history nerd, I could go on forever about Lyuba, or about The Field Museum’s North American Birds display, or the taxidermic magic of its Nature Walk—but really, you should go see for yourself. And The Field Museum’s only one of many options in the city. The free Lincoln Park Zoo, the flashy Shedd Aquarium, and the famous Art Institute of Chicago (also free on Thursday nights, thanks to Target) all offer experiences for adults, children, and youth to share together.
Plus, the museums in Chicago don’t wait behind closed doors for people to come see their collections. They actively engage the community in order to educate. Take the recent initiative started by the Museum of Science & Industry and the Illinois Institute of Technology, which will teach middle school teachers about science so they can be equipped to share that information in the classroom. It’s the only partnership of its kind in the country, showing the willingness of Chicago’s museums to draw people in and to go out and educate the city.
Be swift. Lyuba’s only on display until September 6. Given her track record, she might last forever, but the chance to see her won’t.