I have never been to the Wisconsin State Historical Museum. As someone that has lived in this state for my entire life, this is probably something that should have happened earlier. While I can say I know some of my home state’s history, the reality is I have very little depth of knowledge regarding the origins of Wisconsin and the stories that make up its history. As a result, visiting the Wisconsin State Historical Museum was an early entry on my “I have never...” list. Unfortunately, the museum’s narrow range of opening hours each week made it nearly impossible to make a trip to the location up to this point in my “I have never...” year. As a result, when Rachael made me aware of the museum’s extended hours during the 25th annual Gallery Night in Madison, I knew I needed to make the time to visit the Wisconsin State Historical Museum for the first time.
With Gallery Night upon us, Rachael and I made the short trip downtown this evening for our first visit to the Wisconsin State Historical Museum. Upon arriving, I was happy to learn all of the museum’s exhibits were open for viewing, which meant Rachael and I had the opportunity to take in the Gallery Night special event and spend a few hours wandering through the multiple levels in the museum complex.
Considering the array of options to start our experience, Rachael and I briefly talked about our plan to take in the museum as we looked over the Maps and Meanings exhibit near the museum lobby. Although we were periodically distracted by the variety of colorful maps and displays, we eventually decided we would start our exploration of the museum with the featured Gallery Night artist display on the second floor before continuing upward to the remaining exhibits. With our plan set, Rachael and I took in a few more of the Maps and Meanings displays before making our way to the second floor for the Gallery Night exhibit.
|Maps and Meanings|
The second floor of the museum was a flurry of activity when we stepped off of the elevator. Around us dozens of people milled about beautiful displays of artisan beadwork clothing and paintings interspersed with exhibits highlighting Native American history in the State of Wisconsin. As a lover of both, the mixture of art and history was a welcomed sight to me, but it posed some challenge in deciding where to begin in viewing the displays. After taking in some of the immediately accessible displays, Rachael and I decided we would begin on one end of the building and cycle through the exhibits until we met the opposite side of the building.
|Europeans meet Native Americans in modern Wisconsin|
As we walked, we nibbled on some of the food offered for Gallery Night guests and marveled at the art and relics scattered throughout the museum’s second floor. At first, the displays showed the discovered history of the Native American people in what is now the State of Wisconsin, putting together the pieces Archeologists have uncovered in their research throughout the state. As we progressed, the displays slowly transitioned to the history that came from the era of the first European settlers in the State of Wisconsin. As we moved down the displays, I took note of the underlying story that came with the historic facts surrounding Native Americans in the State of Wisconsin. Although unstated, a theme of occupation, oppression, and forced acclamation to European customs was obvious from the point the first European settlers came to the land that is now Wisconsin to today. The experience evoked an odd mixture of feelings that ranged from curiosity to a degree of somberness that followed our movement through the displays. This continued for some time as we took in the exhibits, until an employee of the museum announced the Gallery Night artists’ presentation was ready to start.
|Relics from a bygone era|
Rachael and I knew the opportunity to listen to the Gallery Night artists speak would add a unique event to our overall experience at the museum. So, we promptly made our way back to the Native American exhibit entrance. There we listened as one of the artists, Karen Ann Hoffman, invited her husband before the group to provide a blessing in the Oneida language. Although we didn’t understand the extent of the prayer, the depth and meaning of the blessing was apparent as the man spoke. There is no other way to describe the moment other than gripping. With the artists yet to speak, I was engaged and my attention was focused solely on what they had to say.
|The main display for the Gallery Night exhibit|
Following the prayer each of the artists discuss their work and their sources of inspiration. One of the two artists, Geri Schrab, told of the influences behind her painting, which began with a trip to see Native American Petroglyphs in the Western United States. She took time to explain she was so moved by her experience that she felt the need to take up painting for the first time to capture her experience. Continuing, she explained this effort resulted in many more trips to Native American historic sites across the United States and eventually broke into a career as a watercolor artist devoted to recreating the stories hidden in the Petroglyphs left by the Native American people from centuries past.
|Keri Ann Hoffman's work|
|The end of an era|
Following her presentation, Keri Ann Hoffman came back before the crowd and provided a brief background on her emergence as a raised Iroquois beadwork artist before breaking into a Native American tale about cooperation and wit. After concluding her story, Keri Ann spoke to the crowd about how such tales serve as the inspiration for her work, guiding her as she sews beaded designs into fabric. Pointing out a nearby display of her work, Keri Ann told the tale that inspired the white glass beaded design cascaded over the fabric. Each of the wispy lines, crisscrossed patterns, and star-like bolts became clear in the design as she told the story of children dancing into the heavens in an effort to become men. The story was beautiful, but it paled in comparison to Keri Ann’s beadwork recreating the story.
With the artists’ introductions complete, Rachael and I took a few more minutes to look over the Native American exhibits we had not yet encountered before heading back to the elevators and ascending to the fourth floor. When the elevator doors opened, a surprisingly vacant hallway appeared, with some small indications of exhibits appearing on the far wall. At first confused, we entered the fourth floor and quickly discovered a part of it was under construction. As a result, we continued in our path until we came to a turn near the back wall of the building. After taking the turn we were immediately enveloped by colorful displays of Wisconsin’s immigrant, political, and cultural history after the state’s foundation. With each new display we came upon I learned something new or different about the state, which satisfied my hopes in making the trip. Additionally, near the back of the fourth floor was a display devoted to the role of the tavern in Wisconsin’s state history. The homage put a smile on my face and provided the added benefit of giving me a little more background as to why we Wisconsinites have the most bars per capita on any state in the nation.
|A summary of Wisconsin's political history|
The renovation effort on the fourth floor made our visit to the exhibits short, which sent Rachael and I down to the third floor for our final round of exhibits. When we reached the floor we were greeted by an eerie silence. Faint sounds of audio accompaniment for the exhibits carried through the air left otherwise vacant by the absence of any other people. Although strange, Rachael and I proceeded into third floor exhibits and quickly became wrapped up in the scenery around us. As an area dedicated to the history of Wisconsin natural resources, industry, and progress, the third floor exhibits were full of intricate displays of tools, raw goods, and products crafted within the state’s borders. Although I had some idea of Wisconsin’s economic structure, I was stunned to see the depth of innovation and industrial prowess that helped craft the modern state. As we moved from one display to the next it became clear Wisconsin truly is a land of plenty, and one I feel lucky to call my home.
|A walk through history|
After walking through the third floor displays, Rachael and I descended back to the first floor of the museum and prepared to leave for home. As we walked out into the damp autumn air I took a moment to look at the capital looming over the Wisconsin State Historical museum building at our back. Lifted by the experience at the museum, I said the first thing that came to my mind. “We live in a pretty cool city, you know?” In response, Rachael gave a brief statement of agreement as we continued across the street and toward the car. My thoughts were something that lingered well after we made the trip home and prepared to call it a night. Overall, my first visit to the Wisconsin State Historical Museum was more than just a good experience; it was a reaffirmation of why this place has remained my home for more than 30 years. If I didn’t know it before today, I can honestly walk away from my first experience at the Wisconsin State Historical Museum knowing Wisconsin’s people are a breed their own. Although our history is speckled with plenty of undesirable events, the overwhelming takeaway from today’s “I have never...” event is that there is something special about this place, and I should do everything in my power to take full advantage of that amazing reality.