The Intellectualization of Chicago’s Culture

An Ethnographic Analysis of the Chicago Cultural Center. Paper for Anthropology of Tourism with Kathleen Adams, PhD, Loyola University Chicago.


The Chicago Cultural Center (CCC), centrally-located in the heart of the city on Randolph and Michigan, aims to represent the diverse population of Chicago. Identified by its own unique architecture, the building houses various offices and exhibits of the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF).  Built in 1897, the five story building was designed to “impress and prove that Chicago had grown into a sophisticated metropolis” (DCASE 2017). The Center draws thousands of tourists and locals each year, eager to see the famous Preston Bradley Tiffany Dome or one of the many constantly-rotating exhibits provided by the CAF. Functionally, the Center is open every day with long hours, seemingly enticing all to enter with its free admission. Rather contrary to the ethnic diversity of Chicago, however, the CCC caters to upper-middle class whites, while staffed by a wide range of minorities. While there exists substantial information through ethnographic methods to hypothesize about the site, Erve Chambers reminds us that “it is misleading to assume that the motivation for any travel experience has a single purpose and that it is important to consider the entire context of the journey and its multiple justifications” (Chambers 2000: 5). Therefore, it is vital to assess the following observations and the theories through an anthropological eye—one that remains objective through its subjective multidisciplinary analysis.

Defining the CCC as a singular locale proves awkward as there are many social factors at play in the Chicago landmark. For proper analysis, tourists (and local) motivation for visiting the site must be assessed with basic ethnographic observation of behaviour and attitude. Pairing anthropological theory then with this ethnography provides insight to how CCC fuels the intellectualism of its guests, both native and visiting.  The resulting norms and attitudes then mold the class identity of the white visitors as superior, promoting their domination of the site while pushing away other minorities who see their behaviour from the working side. With this, discovering the role of the Chicago Cultural Society as an inconsistent, yet attempted Chicago Landmark is possible.

My research partner and I conducted brief interviews with randomly selected visitors and workers throughout the site on Sunday, 22 October 2017, starting at 10am. We took careful note of ethnicity, behaviour, group size, and attitude about each guest’s visit. Of the sixteen visitors with whom we sustained substantial conversations, eight had previously planned to visit the Center, while an equal eight randomly entered. Five of our chats were with individuals who identified as “Chicagoans,” while the rest represented a wide range of home locales (Australia, Georgia, Utah, etc). Every visitor with whom we interacted was white, except one photographer, Charlotte, who was Asian-American. As previously mentioned, the CCC staff were predominantly black. We also spoke with a Mexican-American high school volunteer for the CAF.

For the individuals who had planned to visit the Chicago Cultural Center, visitors of forethought, the content of the exhibits served as their main motivation for attending CCC. Two friends interested in architecture visited from Kalamazoo for their birthday. Two Chicago high schoolers visited for a school project focusing on an artist they had studied. A few individuals from around the country (including Charlotte), were on a photography conference, guided by a Chicago native who brought the group to the Center because of the rain.  Finally, two men (who we presumed were meeting up for a romantic soiree in Chicago) came to study Cooper Hewitt’s exhibit in the Room of Plinths, to research new information for their teaching at IU Bloomington.

Impulsivity visitors provided a variety of narratives, as one would expect in visiting this Chicago landmark. An uncle and his two high school nieces stumbled upon the Center after their visit to the Art Institute—they presumed the Center was a library, yet remained very pleasantly surprised at their amusement throughout the Dome and the traveling sites. Four female middle-aged Australians (all librarians) saw a picture of the Tiffany Dome in the Chicago Hop-on Hop-off tourist bus, yet were surprised to discover CCC’s proximity to Millennium park, from where they just departed. This was a similar case with two women from Atlanta, who stopped in after seeing the well-known copper Bull on the Washington Street entrance. Most insightful, however, was a local Chicagoan who sat in the basement drinking his Starbucks and reading the news on his iPad. He called CCC the “people’s palace,” because of its agency to provide ‘anything to anyone’.  Immediately after his eloquent definition, however, he complained that there are often not enough seats as he gestured to a black man sitting at the table next to him.

Many of CCC’s guests cited the educational aspect of the site as a beneficial factor of their visit. The authentic architecture of the Dome, along with the various architecture exhibits provide a visitor with niche knowledge and unique ‘field research’ to bring back home. Graburn discusses this in detail, stating that “historical, cultural, and ethnic forms of tourism have become increasingly popular, all of them catering to one form or another of modernity’s nostalgia for the premodern” (Graburn 2001: 33). Even more so, this knowledge will transcend a visitor’s trip back to their home, where it will then set them apart from colleagues who unable to have the same experience. This is obviously the case with the IU Bloomington teachers, who mentioned that they would utilize what they see in the exhibit as examples for future lesson plans.  Similarly, the teacher leading the photography seminar capitalized on the poor weather, stating that her visit to CCC showed a beautiful and unique Chicago. Charlotte would use the pictures from the CCC to display her specific new expertise.  Thus, for both locals and tourists, reference to the academic sensation or experience of a place becomes the norm upon return. Bruner supports this claim, stating that “[tourists] go for adventure, for experience, for status, for education and to explore” (Bruner 2005: 194). Both the impulsive and planned visitor utilized the site’s didactic capacity for their own social benefit.

Graburn also discusses the “contract between the ordinary/compulsory work state spent “at home” and the extraordinary/voluntary metaphorically “sacred” experience away from home,” where the ritual between home and abroad is commonplace (Graburn 2001: 27). Due to its predictability then, it is apparent that tourists will use their experience to define themselves upon return. Such is the case with the aforementioned teachers and Australian librarians. Ian Munt dissects Bourdieu’s cultural intellectualism as a commodity, where tourism is a cultural good where experiences are consumed, and then used to benefit the tourist. He warns however, that “the professionalization and intellectualization of travel, together with its associated discourse, have been insufficient in themselves to ensure social differentiation and, more importantly, spatial distance” (Munt 1994: 117). This means that the ritualization associated with travel, and the consequential redefinition as educated tourist, can and will fuel social divide.

The distance that this intellectualization creates between tourist and their sedentary other exacerbates greater social boundaries. The coffee man who doesn’t like his seats being taken by others clearly feels superiority from his knowledge of the building and its exhibits. Because “urban and suburban middle classes feel that their lives are overly artificial and meaningless, lacking deep feelings of belonging and authenticity,” travel can set them apart—travel gives a tourist a social advantage (Graburn 2001: 33). For Charlotte, her pictures and experiences will follow her home, then serving as a piece of her journey. She created the stage in her camera where her picture becomes a sort of souvenir for her to share her incomparable story. Chambers reminds us that “tourists’ goal is to get behind the stage that is provided for them and find something real to experience” (Chambers 2000:19). More broadly, the experiences that the visitors create foment their memories and become part of their individualities. Just as they return home to identify with their celebrations of their journey, so too do their actual experiences fuel their personal being. Morgan and Pritchard discuss souvenirs and their effects on self. They claim that “tourism ‘as a system of presenting and performance’, premising that tourism experience and its material manifestations contribute to our narratives and performances of self” (Morgan and Pritchard 2005:45). They continue that “while the postmodern tourist is conscious that he or she is a tourist, he or she has no single tourist identity but performs a variety of roles with multiple texts and meanings” (ibid:40). This means that, while there remains no obsolete correlation between tourist’s identity and site interaction, there persists a strict identification that comes from travel.  For the tourists (and locals) who visit CCC, the intellectualization of the sight fuels a sense of superiority, personified well with the coffee man.

The Chicago Cultural Center subtly proclaims itself as welcoming to all. As we encountered, the site does cater to a wide variety of people from different geographical locations—yet it remains untouched by any minority. This is due to the high intellectualization that the Center fuels. With its specialized moving tours to its historically-heavy permanence, those with desire to identify as intellectually superior (as the librarians, photographers, students, and teachers have) fuel a pattern of intellectually-dominated attendance. Munt summarizes the cyclical pattern of intellectual tourism fuelling the identification of ‘superior’ intellectuals. He says that “with the emergence of tourism as both an ethically and socially problematic activity among certain fractions of the new middle classes, tourism and tour companies catering for the intellectual demands of these class fractions are of increasing importance in the legitimation of travel” (Munt 1994: 110). From this, it is apparent that the Chicago Cultural Center remains an establishment for tourists to define themselves as intellectuals for their own benefit. They will take home their knowledge to set themselves apart from their less-travelled (and now less educated) counterparts. Thus, CCC fails at representing the diversity of Chicago, yet institutionally is void of blame for this cultural complexity.


Bruner, Edward M. 2005. “The Balinese Border Zone,” In Culture on Tour, 191-210. The University of Chicago Press.

Chambers, Erve. 2000. Native Tours: The Anthropology of Travel and Tourism Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.

Graburn, Nelson H.H. 2001. Secular Ritual: A General Theory of Tourism. Tourists and Tourism 2: 25-35.

Morgan, Nigel Morgan and Annette Pritchard. 2005. On Souvenirs and Metonymy. Tourist Studies 5(1): 29-53.

Munt, Ian. 1994. The ‘Other’ Postmodern Tourism: Culture, Travel and the New Middle Classes. Sage Journals 11(3): 101-123.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s