The legendary bronze beasts of the Art Institute – now “shinier” – return home

The Art Institute of Chicago’s legendary bronze lions returned to their pedestals on Tuesday after receiving their first deep cleaning in nearly 21 years.

After spending a month at Forest Park, where they were steamed and waxed, the pair were taken back to their home outside the museum in a flatbed truck just after noon and placed back on the perches they had used almost continuously for almost 130 years occupied along Michigan Avenue.

But since the sculptures, which were first unveiled in the museum’s opening year, weigh between four and five thousand pounds, transporting them is no easy task.

“Moving something so big — and the fact that it’s such a symbol of Chicago and the museum — feels like a tremendous responsibility,” said Rachel Sabino, the Art Institute’s director of object and textile conservation.

Members of the public take photos Tuesday morning as teams reinstall the Art Institute of Chicago’s famous lion sculptures at the museum.

Sabino was responsible for overseeing the cleaning, which she said will last for many years when coupled with additional, minor wax treatments applied to the sculptures “as needed”.

Sabino said it was rewarding to groom the lions; Not only was she able to contribute to their conservation, but she was also able to see how many people had their own “personal history” with the big cats.

Among viewers on Tuesday was a 72-year-old grandmother, who recalled her parents taking her to the museum when she was a toddler – a journey she’s recreated for her own children and their children in the years since.

Paula, who now lives in Wisconsin and declined to give her last name, said the lions are “always a highlight” of the trip.

Others were just happy to see that the museum was back to normal.

The building looked “unnatural” and “naked” without the giant creatures guarding the steps, observed lifelong Chicago resident Howard von Nichols.

“When you see the Art Institute and the lions are gone, something just isn’t right,” he said.

A crew member from the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio photographs time capsules placed on the base of one of the Art Institute of Chicago's famous lion sculptures on Tuesday.

A crew member from the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio photographs time capsules placed on the base of one of the Art Institute of Chicago’s famous lion sculptures on Tuesday.

Along with the lions, two time capsules guarded by them were also returned. One is from a 2001 cleaning, the other is “much older,” Sabino said.

Hidden beneath the southern lion were Indian-headed pennies – coins minted between 1859 and 1909 – which were also replaced when the lions were replaced.

The bronze beasts were made for the 1893 Columbian Exposition by Edward Kemeys after being commissioned by Florence Lathrop, Marshall Field’s sister-in-law. In 1894, Lathrop asked her to be placed on the steps of the building in honor of her late husband, Henry Field.

The Art Institute of Chicago building after Tuesday's reinstallation of the museum's famous lion sculptures.

The Art Institute of Chicago building after Tuesday’s reinstallation of the museum’s famous lion sculptures.

Despite their status, not everyone in the city was aware of the spectacle that paralyzed an alley on Michigan Avenue.

Bobby Pitts, a 33-year-old former suburban resident, said he stumbled upon the new installation while he was in the area filming a project.

Pitts said he thought they looked “shinier” but was quick to add that the “beautiful Chicago summer day” may have contributed as well.

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