The Art Institute of Chicago’s iconic bronze lions returned to their pedestals on Tuesday after undergoing their first deep cleaning in nearly 21 years.
After spending a month in Forest Park getting steamed and waxed, the pair were driven home shortly after noon outside the museum via a flatbed truck and placed back on the perches they occupied along Michigan Avenue almost continuously for nearly 130 years.
But with the sculptures – which were first unveiled in the museum’s inaugural year – weighing between four and five thousand pounds, moving them is no small task.
“Moving something so huge — and the fact that they’re such a symbol of Chicago and the museum — feels like a huge responsibility,” said Rachel Sabino, director of artefacts and textiles curatorial at the Art Institute.
Sabino was in charge of overseeing the cleaning, which she says will last for many years when combined with additional, smaller wax treatments that will be made to the sculptures “as needed”.
Sabino said cleaning the lions was rewarding; not only was she able to help preserve them, but she also got to see how many people had their own “personal history” with the big cats.
Among the onlookers on Tuesday was a 72-year-old grandmother who said she remembered her parents taking her to the museum when she was a toddler – a trip she recreated in the years since follow-up for his own children and their children.
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 the museum back to normal.
The building looked “unnatural” and “bare” without the giant creatures guarding the steps, observed lifelong Chicagoan Howard von Nichols.
“When you see the Art Institute and the lions are gone, something is wrong,” he said.
In addition to the lions, two time capsules they were guarding were also returned. One is from a cleanup in 2001, but the other is “much older,” Sabino said.
The southern lion had Indian head coins – coins minted between 1859 and 1909 – hidden underneath, which were also replaced when the lions were put back in place.
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 requested that they be placed on the steps of the building in honor of her late husband, Henry Field.
Despite their status, not everyone in town was aware of the show, which closed a lane off Michigan Avenue.
Bobby Pitts, a 33-year-old former suburban resident, said he came across the relocation while in the area filming a project.
Pitts said he thought they looked “brighter,” but was quick to add that the “beautiful Chicago summer day” may have also contributed.