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Highlights Archives

Centennial State Fair Murals on Exhibit Again


The artists depicted the modern farmstead with a well-kept house, yard and buildings including, by 1948, the familiar large red barn and tall silo

For the first time in more than 60 years, visitors to the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis can stand in front of massive murals depicting farm life in Wisconsin. Spanning 60 feet wide and 12 feet high, two vivid murals from the 1948 Centennial Exposition (State Fair) have recently been conserved and are now on display as the centerpiece to the State Fair History Museum display in the Exposition Center. The featured murals depict an idyllic Wisconsin farmhouse and farmstead set in 1948.

Murals Illustrate Changes in Wisconsin's Agricultural Landscape

Organizers of the 1948 Centennial Exposition commissioned a team of artists to create 14 individual 12-by-28-foot murals to illustrate changes in the state's agricultural landscape between 1848 and 1948. The massive murals provided a dramatic backdrop for exhibits and demonstrations. Once the exhibition closed, the murals came down and were largely forgotten until nearly 50 years later.

Sparked by an inquiry from agricultural columnist John Oncken, State Fair Park staff discovered nine of the 14 murals, rolled up and tucked away in the old youth dormitory. The location of the five missing murals remains a mystery today. Only study sketches of the missing murals remain.

With the support of the Kohler Foundation, the original murals received much-needed restorative treatment in 2010. Afterward, technicians scanned the murals and study sketches at high resolution, and the foundation donated the murals and sketches to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Building a Virtual Exhibition

The acquisition of the murals presents an opportunity for the Society to explore virtual exhibition. For the first time since 1948, the centennial mural scenes have been reassembled, albeit, virtually. The study sketches of the missing segments have been scanned in order to complete the original scenes. Internet users can scroll over the murals and travel through the progression of agricultural history just as the artists and planners intended in 1948. But now the user can zoom in to any detail or element and, with one click, obtain contextual information and images — a virtual guided tour.

The Whole Story Behind the Rediscovered Murals

Wisconsin Historical Museum Curator Joe Kapler tells the whole story behind the creation of the murals, their rediscovery and their conservation in 'Preserving the Big Picture for Wisconsin: The 1948 Centennial Fair Murals' in the Autumn 2011 issue of the "Wisconsin Magazine of History." To view the online exhibit, visit 1948 Wisconsin State Fair Murals: 100 Years of Agricultural History.

:: Posted August 2, 2012

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