Take a trip to the Museum of Holography

    Not all holograms are as cute as the sparkly “Good Job!” stickers your third-grade teacher stuck to the top of your test. A hologram called Further Threats at Chicago’s Museum of Holography shows ghoulish figures in hellish red throwing back their heads, casting their palms upward, or clutching their elbows. Yellowing newsprint backs the holographic plate, and a spread of black paint washes over headlines from 1991: floods in Bangladesh, military operations in Yugoslavia, and the vague boldface, “It’s almost over.”

    To passersby, the Museum of Holography on West Washington Boulevard in downtown Chicago looks like it could be a convenience store. On the inside, it’s not much bigger than an apartment, and it can get so cold that visitors keep their coats and scarves on.

    There is no color on this sparkler — there are just tiny slits that filter and reflect different wavelengths of light. This phenomenon, known as “diffraction,” allows us to view holograms. Photo by the author.

    The sub-par physical location hardly detracts from what’s inside. The permanent collection includes startling 360-degree holograms (Michael Jordan dribbling a ball — you can even see him blinking) as well as large-scale holograms like a shark and a T-Rex. Some images, such as the hologram of an enormous hand reaching out to grab a rope, move as the viewer sways back and forth.

    Another exhibit showcases medical holograms of the larynx, kidneys, testes and other body parts, emphasizing an application of holography beyond art: It allows scientists to diagnose cancer and become intimately acquainted with parts of the human body. Yet even these function-over-form images, such as the hologram of intricately spidering lung bronchioles, are beautiful.

    Before holography became an art, it was a science. Hungarian physicist Dennis Gabor won the Nobel Prize in 1971 for his invention of the technique, refined and made possible by new developments in laser technology. To create a hologram, laser light must bounce off of a source object (a statue, for instance) and intersect with another laser beam on a clear plate, forming an “interference pattern” of atomic rearrangement on the plate’s surface. When the right kind of light shines on the plate, the object’s image is reconstructed before our eyes. It appears to have three-dimensional depth, exhibiting parallax, the visual phenomenon occurring when foreground and background move as we move.

    Faster lasers later expanded holographic subjects from inanimate objects to humans and animals. In the museum’s temporary exhibit “Transitional States,” a holographic tear glistens on the cheek of a young boy; his wide eyes express confusion, and the softness of his hair is so real you want to touch it. The pieces in “Transitional States” are crammed into a small space. Their frames nearly overlap on a crowded wall, and the effect of so many pictures popping is a bit overwhelming.

    Another exhibit is a permanent retrospective on the life of Art Freund, who graduated from Northwestern in the ’70s with a BA in mathematics and died relatively young. His work embodies the union of creativity and technology, incorporating philosophy, humor, and retro motifs. One hologram combines a mushroom, a butterfly, the head of a doll, and a sprig of dried flowers in a puzzling still life. Another features the Buddha. Excerpts from his personal notebook, where he brainstormed holographic and mathematical concepts, reveal an observant and innovative mind.

    The museum’s works capture people, places, and images you shouldn’t miss. Thanks to the time-stopping scientific art (or artistic science) of holography, you won’t.


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