Building the Field Museum: SUST Major Laura Miller Hill Reports on Her Summer Sustainability Internship

During the summer of 2015, several Roosevelt University students majoring in Sustainability Studies did internships or pursued study abroad opportunities in various locales around the world, from Chicago to Hawaii and from Schaumburg to Scandinavia. We’re posting their reports from the field on their activities, adventures, and advocacy work in the service of environmental conservation, sustainable development, and social justice.

Here’s another post from Laura Miller Hill, a senior SUST major who interned at Chicago’s world-renowned Field Museum along beautiful Lake Michigan.

Grant Park looking south from Smoke Abatement in Chicago. The Field Museum would be built directly over the end of the breakwater.

Grant Park looking south from Smoke Abatement in Chicago. The Field Museum would be built directly over the end of the breakwater.

When I began my Sustainability Studies internship this summer, I was very excited at the opportunity to pursue my goal of researching and writing about sustainability at the Field Museum. I was also excited at the prospect of working in a museum building that houses millions of natural history specimens from around the world, but soon discovered that the building—and the land that it sits on—also has a very interesting and exciting story to tell.

The story began in 1909, when architect and city planner Daniel Burnham began designing a growing city on the shores of Lake Michigan. Originally, Burnham planned for the Field Museum’s new home to be built in the center of Grant Park; however, due to growing controversy and a lengthy legal battle, the Museum was eventually built on an engineered piece of land that extended Grant Park a total of 2100 feet (over one-third of a mile) beyond Michigan Avenue. Thanks to the Chicago Public Library’s Municipal_Reference Guy, we can see how Grant Park grew as the City needed more open space for parkland and for the construction of cultural institutions.

Chicago Harbor. 1911 Source: Chicago Harbor and Adjacent Waterways

Chicago Harbor. 1911 Source:
Chicago Harbor and Adjacent Waterways


Tunnel Company locomotive and safety sign in 1928 © Bruce Moffat Collection

Tunnel Company locomotive and safety sign in 1928 © Bruce Moffat Collection

Many visitors to the Museum are not aware that the land they are standing on was once a part of Lake Michigan, and was created with coal ash waste and a mixture of clay and dirt, which was taken from foundation excavations from businesses in the Loop. The Chicago Tunnel System was used to transport these materials to the site, and this underground freight system remained open and accessible from the Field Museum’s boiler room for another 78 years. It was not until 1992, when water from the Chicago River flooded tunnels in the Loop, that concerns about damage to artifacts prompted tunnel access to be blocked off from the Museum.


Miller Hill SUST blog image 1d

The Museum Campus after 1996 reconfiguration. Photographer John Weinstein

The current Museum Campus was created after the 1996 Lake Shore Drive reconfiguration, and was developed to include parkland and walkways connecting the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. The distance of almost one-third of a mile from Michigan Avenue (as well as the additional distance from the CTA’s Green Line Roosevelt Road Station) makes walking to the Field Museum either a very pleasant experience or a challenge, depending on the time of year.

Field Museum Bike Sharing Area Photo: L. Miller Hill

Field Museum Bike Sharing Area
Photo: L. Miller Hill

Recently, bike lanes have been added to the Museum Campus neighborhood to make it safer and easier to commute by bicycle, and a Divvy Bike Sharing station was added to the southwest side of the Museum. And to help the Museum have an overall smaller carbon footprint, the Museum promotes bicycle commuting, public transportation use, and car-pooling for staff, volunteers, and interns in order to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commuting.  Thanks to the members of A Greener Field (the Museum’s Green Team), the Museum is a member of the Active Transportation Alliance and has been one of the winners in the Bike Commuter Challenge in all years but one from 2006 to 2015. As 20% of the Museum’s LEED points came from staff commuting behavior, creating and supporting a biking culture was instrumental in qualifying the Museum for LEED points for accessibility.

Bike Commuter Challenge Poster Photo: L. Miller Hill

Bike Commuter Challenge Poster
Photo: L. Miller Hill

This very supportive biking culture at the Museum is evidenced by access to a locker room with showers and a secure indoor bike cage for staff, volunteer, and intern bike commuters to store their bikes, as well as access to bikes from the shared bikes program, which is free to staff and volunteers. Recently, a Field Museum Commuter Survey conducted by the Metropolitan Planning Council was sent out to staff and volunteers to assess ways to improve transportation infrastructure on the Museum Campus. Of the 295 respondents (193 Museum employees and 102 Museum volunteers), 14 percent indicated that they use a bicycle as their usual mode of transportation to get to and from work.  According to the League for American Bicyclists, a 2013 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau found that only 1.4 percent of Chicagoans used their bike for commuting—a 389 percent increase from a survey done in the 1990’s. Yet this is only a tenth of the percentage of the Field Museum staff and volunteers who used a bicycle to commute to and from the Museum in 2015.

Field Museum Bike Cage Photo L. Miller Hill

Field Museum Bike Cage
Photo L. Miller Hill

So, although my summer internship began as a way of documenting and reporting on sustainability issues, I ended up unearthing an innovative spirit at the Museum that began in the early part of the 20th Century and continues to this day. From its beginnings as a reworked part of Burnham’s 1909 Plan to current environmental initiatives, this spirit continues to drive sustainability commitments throughout the Museum. By setting operational goals that include encouraging and supporting staff, volunteers, and interns to find alternative modes of transportation, the commitment to reduce carbon emissions is yet another way the Field Museum is genuinely making a difference.

Laura Miller Hill M15Laura Miller Hill is a returning adult undergraduate student at Roosevelt University, where she is a senior Sustainability Studies major. She spent her 2015 summer working as a Keller Science Action Center intern at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago under the supervision of Sustainability Manager Carter O’Brien. Miller Hill’s primary job was to take facts, stories and general information regarding sustainability initiatives throughout the museum and consolidate them into webpages that are both educational and easily understood by people who visit the Museum’s A Greener Field website. In a previous RU course, SUST 240 Waste, she authored this waste and environmental justice essay about Town of Pines, Indiana, for the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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