3-D wonderland

Maren Dougherty

Anyone with a latent desire to see a three-dimensional representation of the male testes and spermatic cord can now see that wish fulfilled. Welcome to Chicago’s Museum of Holography. Located at 1134 W. Washington Blvd., a road lined with sculpture galleries, wine shops and Oprah’s Harpo Productions studio, this center devoted to those retro popping images is like a Snoopy Pez dispenser awkwardly placed between rows of crystal and ceramic figurines. Nevertheless, it has a bit of endearing, kitschy charm.

The non-profit center and its accompanying school of holography opened in 1976 to encourage the design and use of holograms. The school offers courses to aspiring artists, scientists and engineers who are interested in the transmission and manipulation of light. The gallery is open to all ages, although it tends to cater to the interests of a younger audience.

Executive director Loren Billings says she has talked to area high school teachers and professors who are disappointed with the declining interest in science, and she hopes the museum will contribute to a future rise in the subject’s popularity.

“Our interest is getting youngsters to become interested in science,” Billings says. “The museum serves as a good scientific background to stimulate them.”

Although they are perhaps known more for their contributions to childrens’ school supplies, Pogs and stickers than for their scientific and artistic merit, holograms are elevated to the level of fine art at the museum. The exhibits have not changed significantly over the past few decades, but most of the images aren’t time sensitive. The museum space — about the same size as the bottom floor of a fraternity house — includes four separate rooms of more than 100 images that range from neon-green holographic displays of sports figures like Michael Jordan to wall-hanging holograms of ferocious dinosaurs. One room is dedicated to the late Art Freund, a Chicago artist and holographic enthusiast.

Judging from her 28 years of working at the museum, Billings says the most popular images are the larger ones of people performing actions, such as a miner panning for gold and a painter who seems to reach out of the frame to move his delicate brush into the space in front of him.

“(The exhibit) gathers excitement from young and old,” she says, adding that some grandparents will get down on their knees to view images designed for children. “The interest is there for all levels of intelligence.”

In addition to providing descriptive information about each hologram, some of the rooms also include the designer’s equations for creating different images by changing the angles and patterns of light in their works.

Another room highlights the contributions holography has made to medicine with voxgrams-life-size transparent holograms that allow doctors to read images more clearly and show patients realistic representations of a body part, like a breast with a tumor. Along with x-rays and CAT scans, voxgrams are used at universities and hospitals across the nation.

“It’s high science; it’s about wave theory,” Billings says.

She says school groups come from as far as Ohio and Kentucky, as well as scientists from countries like Russia. On a typical day, the museum sees about 25 visitors. Although Oprah works a block away, Billings says the talk-show host knows about the museum but has not visited yet.

“It’s her loss,” she says.

It may not be an impressive, professional museum — the Web site looks like it may have been designed by your 10-year-old neighbor’s dog — but the Museum of Holography is a unique place to visit that’s not far from Michigan Avenue. Couples who struggle to find a happy medium between exhibits of First Ladies’ fashion and the Chicago Auto Show might find common ground at this site: an intersection of creativity and technology.

“If you understand science, you understand yourself and humanity better,” Billings says. “It’s a world we’ll be exploring for generations and generations to come.”

The Museum of Holography, located at 1134 W. Washington Blvd., is open Wednesdays through Sundays, 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $4. For more information or to request a tour, call 312-226-1007 or visit the center’s Web site at http://www.holographiccenter.com.

Medill junior Maren Dougherty is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].