Saturday, October 31, 2009

Emma Thompson

A quick thought.

I just heard on NPR this morning that Emma Thompson is bringing an exhibit to Washington Square in New York. It's about a woman's journey through the sex trade from Moldova to London. Thompson worked with the woman, Elena, to put together this exhibit called Journey which has already spent some time in Trafalgar Square in London. I have many thoughts about this and really want to see the exhibit. However, the thing that struck me most was that the interviewer ended his talk with Thompson by calling her project an "art installation." The entire way through the interview I had been thinking, "Cool! Emma Thompson is doing a traveling exhibit!" It did not even occur to me that someone might interpret it as an art installation.

So the question remains: art installation or exhibit? Is there a difference and does it matter? Is the interpretation of an exhibit as important to consider as the interpretation in the exhibit?

And, for those interested, a link to the NPR story:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vilhelm Moberg, 1898-1973

Recently, on a road trip through Minnesota, I passed through Chisago City, a small town of Swedish heritage about an hour north of the Twin Cities. My favorite historic sites and monuments are often those that are simply unexpected. I love stumbling across a little gem when my mind is elsewhere and Chisago City provided me with a thought-provoking example.

In the center of town there is a disused railway depot surrounded by the old storefronts of the 1800s, now somewhat restored and housing a few nostalgia shops and candy stores. In the center of the square is a monument to Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg. The statue at the top of the monument depicts Moberg himself, hands shoved in his trouser pockets, gazing intently off into the distance. Next to him stands a larger-than-life bicycle.

The plaque on the monument reads:
Vilhelm Moberg
Algutsboda, Sweden
Writer - Playwright - Journalist - Social Critic
Vilhelm Moberg was one of the foremost Swedish authors of the 20th century. His most famous characters, Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson, were representative of the over 1.2 million Swedish emigrants that landed on our shores between 1846 and 1930. During the summer of 1948 he stayed in Chisago City and explored this area by bicycle. That research helped shape his most famous work -- the epic tetralogy "The Emigrants," "Unto a Good Land," "The Settlers," and "The Last Letter Home." In Sweden, thanks to Moberg's literary works, this land of Kichi-Saga--the Chisago Lakes Area--is probably the best-known area of the United States.
September 7, 1996

Regardless of whether or not "this land of Kichi-Saga" is indeed the "best-known area of the United States" in Sweden (New York isn't really on their radar, then?), the existence of such a monument beautifully sums up the lure of celebrity tourism and the desire people feel to attach themselves to a larger historical trajectory. Now, I did not grow up in a small town, but I have lived most of my life in a medium-sized city that sometimes has a tough time laying its claim to historical fame. Sure, a few eccentric musicians were born here, but they have now mostly eschewed their association with the town. We housed some noteworthy gangsters in our Victorian houses in the 1930s, but Chicago beats us with Al Capone. Railroad tycoons and famous authors once strolled under our elm trees (now long dead) on their way to the river, but we can't claim to be the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. (Although, perhaps this is a good thing--have you ever been to Hannibal, Missouri? The Twain kitschyness is suffocating.) So, long story short, I understand the need to feel a part of a larger story, to connect oneself with world-known romances or nationally recognized Civil War battles.

The Vilhelm Moberg monument in Chisago City is a physical expression of the human need to feel a part of something larger. I suppose this is often translated in a religious sense as being subject to Fate or God's Will, but I think historical identity is equally important. The residents of Chisago City--or, at the very least, those residents who erected the monument--want to feel like their town has played a deciding role in world history. Their "claim to fame" rests on the shoulders of the famous Swedish writer (whom I had never heard of) and his biking travels through rural Minnesota. I haven't quite decided what it means for people to need a "claim to fame," but I think it has something to do with a need to feel worth, to feel like one's life does not exist in a vacuum, that we are all connected--across time--and our paths cross in significant ways. Gazing up at Moberg's spectacled features, I wondered what he would think of the Chisago City monument and if he desired a connection to this place as much as it desired a connection to him.

As I drove out of town, I passed a farmhouse with an enormous sign in the front yard: "Vilhelm Moberg Slept Here." Then again, perhaps the city's need to associate itself with Vilhelm Moberg is just a need to attract tourist dollars from his most rabid fans. Any of you out there visited Chisago City?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jeffers Petroglyphs

(Apologies for the late publication of this post--my seasonal work at a local historic site is coming to a close and I find myself with more time on my hands. Thus, I have finally gotten around to finishing this up.)

On the way back from Pipestone, we stopped near Comfrey, MN to visit Jeffers Petroglyphs, a site run by the Minnesota Historical Society. It was wet and pouring rain and thus we did not enjoy our tour of the petroglyphs as much as I hoped we would. However, the tiny visitor center had its own surprising gems and I was tantalized enough to promise a second visit when the weather is nice--preferably at sunset.

Full disclosure: I have quite a bit of experience with the Minnesota Historical Society, so perhaps I am a bit biased (or maybe I'm jaded enough to be even more objective!). That being said, I think MHS consistently puts a lot of thought into the creative, technical aspects of their exhibits and how they can best engage visitors. The Jeffers Petroglyphs site was no different.

The visitor center is quite small, but very well put together. It's about a three minute walk from the petroglyphs themselves and has exhibits about the petroglyphs and American Indian technology. There is an introductory multi-media presentation that shows how the petroglyphs were made: the presentation matches images of buffalo, thunderstorms, and family relationships with the petroglyphs they inspired, all without using spoken commentary. Sitting in the darkened theater, visitors hear the crash of thunder and see a flash of lightning which is then translated into an image of a lightning bolt carved into rock. It's the kind of presentation that can be understood by many different kinds of people, be it small children who don't know the word "petroglyph" to adults like myself who are charmed by the presentation's ability to bring the petroglyphs to life and connect them to their real life creators. It also reaffirms my belief that in order to be successful, museums and historic sites need to embrace new media and technology and not be scared to be experimental. The fact that a site like Jeffers Petroglyphs--quite small and isolated--can achieve this so beautifully suggests that museums and sites of all sizes can find ways to be creative with their exhibit presentation.

In addition to the multimedia presentation, there were a number of interesting "traditional" exhibit pieces. Several displays of Native American technology were placed around the room and juxtaposed with examples of the work and craftsmanship they facilitate. Hands-on activities were the name of the game on the day I visited and the staff convinced me to try my hand at making an atlatl, a device that was used to increase the speed and range of spears. I was not very successful but I was delighted by the abundance of touchable pieces in the exhibits including an sled (see left) piled high with tools made of stone and horn, containers made of hide and sinew, and skins and furs of all kinds. A sign next to the sled read "HANDS ON ACTIVITY--PLEASE TOUCH--EVERYONE WELCOME." A "Please touch" sign in a museum? I was thoroughly enchanted.

In addition to these exhibits on general Native American technology, there were of course a few other pieces on the petroglyphs themselves. One piece (see right) was a replica of one of the petroglyphs with a light source that could be moved in an arch reproducing the movement of the sun over a day. A visitor could move the position of the sun to see how the shadows changed the shape and look of the petroglyph. Sunset and early morning are meant to be the best times to view the petroglyphs as the low sunlight creates striking shadows. Though I was unable to experience the actual petroglyphs in this light, I at least was able to get a sense of what it would be like with this exhibit.

In short, a second visit to Jeffers Petroglyphs is definitely in order.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pipestone National Monument

After leaving the Little Feather Center, I moved on to Pipestone National Monument, a site run by the National Park Service.

The site is nicely put together with a small exhibit on the history of quarrying pipestone, a hands-on station where folks can try a hand at shaping pipestone using saws and files, and a demonstration area where visitors can see pipestone craftspeople do their thing. There is also, of course, a gift shop where I could not resist buying pipestone earrings (made by local American Indian craftspeople, so I didn't feel too guilty or kitschy). The big draw, however, is the 3/4 mile walk around the quarries themselves and the surrounding country.

For many years beginning in the late 1800s, pipestone quarries were raided by white settlers in order to make souvenirs for visiting dignitaries. Since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions pipestone in his Song of Hiawatha, the town marketers seized on the publicity and tried to make Pipestone the "Peace Capital of the World" (because pipestone is used to make peacepipes), drawing tourists, important statesmen, and settlers to the town and nearby quarries. The pipestone quarries are sacred ground where Native American tribes gather the soft rock to make peacepipes and other objects. According to "legend" heavily publicized by the town founders, tribes from all over the region would travel miles to quarry pipestone and, once they reached the sacred spot, would call truces and cease whatever fighting normally happened between tribes. (For more about Pipestone's 19th-century commercial image, see Southwick's book mentioned in the previous post.) Nowadays, the national monument still capitalizes somewhat on this image but no one is allowed to quarry pipestone except American Indians who have obtained the proper license.

I was particularly struck by the way the Park Service has decided to focus a lot of the site on the natural landscape. The Pipestone quarries is one of the few places in Minnesota that has not been plowed and cultivated (and almost certainly the only one in southern Minnesota!). So the Park Service has begun a rigorous prairie fire program that ensures the health of the native prairie grasses and plants and the nature trail emphasized the local landscape and environment. I really liked this aspect of the site and am pleased to find that more and more places like Pipestone have begun to reinvigorate native prairie landscapes and fend off alien intruders.

My biggest qualm with the Park Service site was the lack of history pertaining to the European appropriation of the quarries and of pipestone as symbols of American history. Southwick's book presented some fascinating examples of how the site has been manipulated for decades by white settlers and it seems that only recently has there been a greater emphasis on interpreting the site from the American Indian perspective. Although, I feel it's unlikely the Park Service will ever talk about Pipestone's dark past (museums and historic sites, quite unfortunately, seem to hate controversy).

There was also a nice little exhibit about the Three Maidens. These are three enormous boulders left over from the last glacial period that sit just down the road from the quarries. American Indian tribes carved petroglyphs into the boulders for centuries but one of Pipestone's European founders removed the petroglyphs in the 1800s and the fragmented pieces now sit in an exhibit at the Park Service site. Again, the exhibit doesn't condemn the removal of the petroglyphs from the Three Maidens and fails to capitalize on this opportunity to explain the Pipestone's complicated history. Shame.

Sadly, the one place I did not have time to see on my visit to Pipestone was the Pipestone County Museum. I stopped there in the morning to get maps and recommendations and intended to return before leaving, but Pipestone National Monument wore me out and I ended up taking an unplanned hour-long nap that lasted until after closing time.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center

I confess, I was a biased visitor to Pipestone, MN and I went out of my way to find the kitschiest, strangest, most amusing manifestations of the city's claim as the "Home of the Peacepipe." This is thanks largely to Sally J. Southwick's somewhat long-winded but thoroughly researched Building on a Borrowed Past: Place and Identity in Pipestone, MN which I read for a college course on public history. I was not disappointed...

Here we see a sign declaring Pipestone as the "Crossroads of the Indian World." This sign is outside "Fort Pipestone" a replica frontier fort...that never actually existed. That's right: this fort is not even a reconstruction of a destroyed fort but a complete tourist fabrication. Entry is free, but you're supposed to buy souvenirs at the gift shop. Sadly, I did not have time to spend my hard-earned paychecks buying miniature keychains in the shape of calumets. Next time.

The biggest surprise was finding this little gem in the midst of all the peacepipe kitsch: The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center, a Dakota-owned and operated museum dedicated, among other things, to honoring American Indian women "firsts" (i.e. first Native American Miss America, first Native American ballerina, etc.). The museum also features an extensive collection of photographs from the Fort Snelling internment camp where thousands of Dakota were imprisoned and several hundred died following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The portion on American Indian women is called the "Ancient Voices Museum" and was my favorite part of the center. Though the text was a little wordy and the laminated labels reflected the light in such a way that sometimes made it hard to read, the information and photographs displayed were fascinating and moving. They highlighted several American Indian women from tribes across the United States and their landmark "firsts." I read about the first Native American woman to become a registered nurse, the first Native American woman to "speak out for American Indian issues," and many other fascinating women. Their stories were accompanied by photographs and artifacts including a display of women's clothing. I did have some reservations with the decision to highlight "firsts" as this format tended to celebrate women for doing "white" things (ballet, Miss America pageant) and essentially for assimilating into the dominant culture. However, I also understand the value of portraying American Indians' lives and achievements in contemporary society, particularly when the myth of the "Vanishing Indian" is all too present in today's discourse and popular culture. Ultimately, the very existence of a museum like this was exciting to me and I was deeply moved by the overall presentation.

I think I was so taken with this museum because this was the last place I expected to find an exhibit highlighting the experiences of American Indian women from around the country. My prior knowledge of Pipestone (again, from Southwick's book) led me to believe the town and its heritage had been entirely appropriated and repackaged by white settlers and that it remained so today. Not so, if this museum is anything to go by.

More Pipestone adventures in my next post...


Welcome to the blog of the Museum Maven!

I am a soon-to-be professional public historian interested in history and "cultural" museums and sites of all kinds. Since my earliest years on family vacations, I preferred visiting castle ruins and the birthplaces of famous women and men over amusement parks. I have visited plenty of both but never considered sharing my observations with anyone other than my patient (and likewise museum-loving) mother until now. I hope my entries will serve as part-review part-publicity for the various sites I visit during my travels. As I am based in the Upper Midwest, my entries will be biased towards that region, but I am an enthusiastic and frequent traveler and hope to add entries on museums and historic sites around the world.

Happy reading, all! And please support your local museum or historic site!