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.

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