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.