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The Hamilton Exhibition Was Doomed From the Start

Producers are closing the exhibit early to avoid congestion during North Coast Music Festival and a Bears game. But Northerly Island was a bad home to begin with.

Hamilton: The Exhibition’s “Declaration Hall”  

On Monday morning, barely three months after its delayed opening, the much-hyped Hamilton: The Exhibition announced an early closing.

Jeffrey Seller, the producer behind both the 35,000-square-foot attraction and the massively successful musical from which it spun off, said the exhibition would close August 25, two weeks before the initial end date of September 8. Tickets already sold for the final two weeks are being refunded. And plans to tour the exhibit to other cities have been scrapped, Seller told the Chicago Tribune.

In announcing the early close, producers cited traffic-snarling events that would “complicate access” to the exhibition, which is housed in a giant shed plopped in the middle of Northerly Island. Among those events: the North Coast Music Festival at Huntington Bank Pavilion on August 30 and 31 and a Bears preseason game at Soldier Field on August 29.

Neither of those events is exactly a surprise. North Coast’s move to Northerly Island from Union Park was announced in April, weeks before the Hamilton exhibition opened. And the Bears’ Thursday night matchup with the Titans isn’t even their first home game of the season; that would be next week, when they host the Panthers on August 8.

In truth, the Northerly Island location was probably too complicated to access all along. A half-mile walk or trolley ride south from the Museum Campus bus route and a mile and a half from the nearest L station (Roosevelt), the exhibition is a pain to get to using public transportation. Even in a car it isn’t easy: There’s just one road connecting Northerly Island to Chicago’s “mainland,” and limited, expensive parking. There’s zero chance you’d casually happen upon the attraction, and little else to do on the island once you’re done.

That wouldn’t be a problem had its creators made a coherent case that Hamilton: The Exhibition was worth the trek. But the endeavor has suffered from an identity crisis since its inception.

Chiefly, Hamilton: The Exhibition occupied shaky conceptual ground: It would be an immersive overview of the life of Alexander Hamilton, ostensibly for those who wanted to learn the history behind Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical, but who aren’t invested enough to read the Ron Chernow biography that inspired it.

With audio guidance narrated by Miranda and his Broadway co-stars Phillipa Soo (Eliza Schuyler) and Chris Jackson (George Washington), visitors are led through 18 galleries filled with set pieces devised by David Korins, who also designed the set for the musical. The rooms blow up moments that get covered in a verse or two in the stage show — say, the hurricane that hit Hamilton’s childhood home of St. Croix — using the extra space to fill in factoids or correct the record where the musical fudged it for narrative’s sake.

The audio experience is reminiscent of David Bowie Is, a showcase of the musician’s personal artifacts at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014. Like that exhibit, the Hamilton headset senses your location within the space and automatically plays the corresponding track, all underscored by a new orchestral rendering of Miranda’s music.

But unlike the Bowie show, or even the less thoughtful Rolling Stones roadshow that came to Navy Pier in 2017, it’s hard to shake the knowledge that everything in Hamilton: The Exhibition is manufactured. Speaking at a preview of the exhibit the day before it opened, Korins said that it might eventually host some authentic documents on loan, once the creators were sure the building’s HVAC was stable enough. Instead, what visitors would be paying to see was a collection of renderings, reproductions, and reenactments.

That left Hamilton: The Exhibition in an uncomfortable place. It isn’t a museum-worthy exhibit like Bowie Is, nor is it an Instagram-baiting activation like 29rooms or Emporium’s pop-up bars. It’s like visiting Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, but without the rest of the park to justify the trip.

Hamilton the musical has crossed into the larger cultural conversation like few other Broadway musicals have managed in recent years. It’s garnered a loyal fanbase who’ve scooped up tons of merch, from its cast album to a coffee table book to a star-studded collection of remixes and covers. Northerly Island, though, proved farther than the Hamilfans were willing to go.

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