A giant wild turkey greets visitors to the Backroom, a pop-up bar located in the former pool of the Chicago Athletic Association. Long since deceased, the bird spreads its tail feathers from behind glass, looking like it belongs in a museum rather than a bar. Indeed, it does. The Backroom is a collaboration between the Field Museum, Johalla Projects, Land and Sea Dept., and the CAA, presented in conjunction with the Field’s exhibit “Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life,” opening March 10. To highlight the 30 million specimens housed in the museum—less than 1 percent of which are usually on display—the exhibit will present a selection of some that are usually kept in storage, including an extinct minnow that’s the last remaining one of its kind. The exhibit aims to tell the stories behind those specimens and explore how scientists use the museum’s collections in their daily work. Noah Cruickshank, the adult engagement manager at the Field Museum, says that the collection also includes plants from 1776 and a beetle that Darwin collected.
The specimens on display at the Backroom are not quite so rare. It is, however, the first time the Field has released most of them for viewing outside the museum. The space, designed by art collective Johalla Projects, is set up to evoke a scientist’s office in the 1970s. There’s an enormous taxidermied beaver behind the bar, ficus plants in the corners, and display cases containing drawers of birds, moths, beetles, and other formerly living creatures.
The bar is open only on Friday and Saturday nights through March 25, and every evening a Field Museum scientist will present a workshop, demo, or discussion: for example, attendees might learn how to press plants or mount butterflies. “It’s an opportunity to talk with scientists in a relaxed atmosphere,” Cruickshank says. “No one’s lecturing. We wanted people to be able to ask questions.” Once the scientists depart each night, programming will include DJs, karaoke, and trivia.
And, of course, drinks will be served throughout the evening. Mixologist Paul McGee (Lost Lake, CAA’s Milk Room) is responsible for the extremely brief menu: three beers, three wines, and two mixed drinks. Both cocktails are simple twists on classics—the Negroni substitutes Gran Classico Bitter for Campari, and the Amaro Mule has two types of amaro in place of vodka. They’re just as well balanced as you’d expect McGee creations to be, but the connection to the space feels tenuous at best (although since all alcohol comes from some type of plant, one could argue it all relates to botany).
It’s possible that the drinks will become a little bolder in the weeks to come, though. At the opening-night event on February 25, I talked to Nandini Khaund, the “spirit guide” upstairs at Cindy’s, who said she’d just been chatting with Cruickshank about the possibility of creating cocktails for a few nights of the pop-up. She hadn’t settled on anything specific, but was thinking along the lines of insects: spiders encased in ice cubes, drinks rimmed with worm salt, or something involving crickets or possibly stinkbugs. If the pig’s blood cocktail she made for the Reader‘s Cocktail Challenge is any indication, Khaund has the creativity and flair for the dramatic to pull it off.
Backroom is open Fridays and Saturdays from 5 PM to midnight through March 25 at the Chicago Athletic Association (12 S. Michigan, 312-940-3552). Workshops are from 5 to 8 PM each night.
Backroom’s events schedule:
Fri 3/3: Dig Your Own Dinosaur with Akiko Shinya
Sat 3/4: Glowing Rocks with Jim Holstein
Fri 3/10: Plant Pressing with Anna Balla
Sat 3/11: Mushroom Show & Tell with Patrick Leacock
Fri 3/17: Butterfly Pinning with Crystal Maier
Sat 3/18: Taxidermy Demonstration with Mickey Kwapis
Fri 3/24: Scientists on Screen with Greg Mercer
Sat 3/25: Assembling Fish Skeletons with Caleb McMahan