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Share Your Voice: Waukesha

Waukesha County residents discuss plans for a new Wisconsin history museum

Share Your Voice: Waukesha | Wisconsin Historical Society

 Guests listen during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum engagement session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

David Drake and other guests listen during a discussion at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum inside the newly renovated 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.

   

Story and photos by Hannah Hankins
Wisconsin Historical Foundation


WAUKESHA — The Waukesha Historic Courthouse was a perfect setting for the Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Share Your Voice” new museum public listening session on March 13, 2019. A large crowd filled the room nearly to capacity for what turned out to be a very productive evening of lively discussions about museum experiences and what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin.

It was one of more than 40 sessions that the Society is holding across Wisconsin in an effort to share early plans and seek public ideas for the new Wisconsin history museum it plans to build to replace its current museum on Wisconsin’s Capitol Square in Madison.

The historic courthouse, built in 1893 but recently renovated, is now home of the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum. When all renovations are completed later this year, it will also feature event and residential spaces. 

EnlargeBonnie Byrd, Executive Director for the Waukesha County Historical Society, talks about the renovation of the 1893 courthouse which houses the WCHS and emphasizes the value of “investments in the physical presence of history in our communities.”


Bonnie Byrd, Executive Director for the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum, opens the "Share Your Voice" new museum session March 13, 2019 by talking about the renovation of the 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse and emphasizing the value of “investments in the physical presence of history in our communities.”

Bonnie Byrd, Executive Director for the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum, which co-hosted the event, opened the session with remarks about the importance of local history to the story of Wisconsin as a whole. She also spoke about the recent major renovation of the Courthouse — “the largest artifact WCHS has” — and emphasized the value of “investments in the physical presence of history in our communities.”

Byrd then introduced Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Øverland shared details about the new museum project and expressed the importance of gathering the attendees’ feedback about what the new museum should be like. 

“We are building this for the people, with the people,” he said. “This is the people’s museum. This is not me talking to you, this is me listening to you.”

Øverland then played a video that described the overall focus of the new museum — “What Makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin?” — as well as several underlying themes.

EnlargeChristian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha. "We are building this for the people, with the people," he said. "This is the people's museum. This is not me talking to you, this is me listening to you." Ø

Øverland kicked off the first activity by asking attendees what they wanted people to know about the history of their community. “What is significant in Waukesha and Waukesha County that makes Wisconsin Wisconsin?” he said, asking guests to write their ideas on Post-It notes, which Society staff would then place on theme boards in the room.

The attendees were eager to respond. Some suggestions:

“Waukesha county was known as the Saratoga of the West!”

“Music and Les Paul!”

“Food — we have some great food that was invented here like the cruller.”

 “Transportation — the railways and riverways!”

Other answers included that Waukesha is home to Wisconsin’s first four-year institute of higher learning (Carroll University), stops on the Underground Railroad, Increase Lapham and more.

In the next activity, guests offered feedback to some early concept design renderings of potential museum exhibits. As Øverland displayed each new rendering, he polled the room for a general response. Guests also shared more specific feedback about each design. 

One rendering showed a large atrium, its walls covered in screens displaying historic images. Øverland explained that this introductory area would be located just beyond the entrance of the museum and would serve as a hub, with paths leading to exhibit areas of the museum. 

He added that the media featured on the walls could be curated differently depending on current events or groups of visitors that day.

Another rendering of this space showed how it could be transformed into a presentation area for groups and serve as the home base for a digital distance learning program in which the screens could be used to connect via streaming video with students or groups across Wisconsin. 

The rendering depicts a scene in which the Society’s maritime archaeologists could be broadcasting live underwater at a Great Lakes shipwreck site, with audiences from several cities across the state connected and able to ask questions of the archaeologists.

One attendee wasn’t sure that this space would be the best way to reach young audiences, however. 

“Today’s audience already has so much audio and visual, this is going to be comfortable for them … Give them the visual experience, but also give them the tactile experience.”

Some guests expressed concerns that the space might be overwhelming if many videos were displayed at once (vs. still photographs). “It’s the motion I’m worried about,” one said. 

One guest noted that he would be less interested in this space because it wouldn’t hold artifacts. 

EnlargeGuests write down ideas on Post-It notes for an exercise during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


Guests look over materials describing the Wisconsin Historical Society's new museum project prior to the "Share Your Voice" public listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

Another suggested that the video conference technology in this space could be useful while the current Wisconsin Historical Museum is closed and the new museum is being built: “You could get a temporary studio where you could get a lot of this programming going” to keep people engaged while there is no physical space to visit.

Another rendering depicted a “Laboratory of Democracy” area, with a window looking across the street at the State Capitol and displays of historic newspapers coming from the Society’s collection, which is second in size only to the Library of Congress. One guest suggested including a kiosk at which children who might have trouble relating to the historic newspapers on display could be engaged by searching for and printing the front page of a newspaper on the day they were born.

A rendering that drew very mixed and pointed reactions — not unlike other “Share Your Voice” sessions held across the state — was of a potential art installation of a cow sculpture comprising objects from each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. 

“It looks like a garbage dump,” one guest bluntly noted.

However, a woman shared that her fifth-grade son “who doesn’t like museums, would like this because he doesn’t have to read, he can just look at stuff.”

Another guest agreed that it would be an interesting exhibit for children and that it could be a game in which they try to identify which object came from which county. 

Several attendees believed an art installation was a nice idea, but shouldn’t be in the form of a cow. “I don’t like the cow because it reinforces the stereotype that all Wisconsin is is cows.”

In the final activity, Øverland asked guests to share their favorite experience at a museum.

EnlargeCharlie Byler, a Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum board member, enjoys a laugh with fellow guests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.


Charlie Byler, a Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum board member, enjoys a laugh with fellow guests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.

One attendee talked about how he always loved visiting the Milwaukee Public Museum because of iconic exhibits like the Streets of Old Milwaukee and memorable moments like learning where the button is to make a rattlesnake move. “It seems to me that the two most important things for children are that what is available is immersive and interactive,” he said.

Another person noted how younger generations don’t seem to be connected to their history and wondered if there was a way to connect them to their families’ history. 

Øverland jumped at the opportunity to explain the Society’s genealogical records, which date back to the 1600s and include a host of East Coast states in addition to Wisconsin. Most popular genealogy websites, in fact, access the Society’s records to return their search results. 

“We have the largest genealogical collection as well as extensive archives and records that are in the process of being digitized,” Øverland said. 

While artifacts weren’t the central focus of the renderings shown, Øverland stressed that guests were only seeing 1/50th of the museum and that there would be no shortage of artifacts on display thanks to the world-class collections of the Society, which dates back to 1846, two years before Wisconsin became a state.

Øverland explained that the new museum will replace the current Wisconsin Historical Museum on the Capitol Square — taking up a much larger footprint thanks to the public-private development partnership with the current museum’s neighbors.

Guests asked how long there would be no museum because of demolition and construction. 

Øverland said that plans estimate about three years, but he emphasized, “we don’t want to go dark.” He talked about how the Society “will find other avenues for keeping the audience engaged,” including capitalizing on Old World Wisconsin in nearby Eagle, one of the Society’s 12 historic sites and museums. 

A guest chuckles with guests as she makes a point during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


A guest chuckles with guests as she makes a point during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

Guests enjoy a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha Historical Museum and Historical Society inside the newly renovated 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.


Guests enjoy a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum inside the newly renovated 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.

Guests examine early concept exhibit design renderings prior to the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session held March 13, 2019 at the historic 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.


Guests examine early concept exhibit design renderings prior to the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session held March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha Historic Courthouse, now home of the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum.

Guests enjoy a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha Historical Museum and Historical Society inside the newly renovated 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.


Guests enjoy a laugh as they write down their ideas during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 at the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum inside the newly renovated 1893 Waukesha Historic Courthouse.

Society Director Christian Øverland shows guests where the new Wisconsin history museum will be located on the Capital Square in Madison, and how much larger it will be than the current Wisconsin Historical Museum.


Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, shows guests where the new Wisconsin history museum will be located on the Capital Square in Madison, and how much larger its footprint will be than the current Wisconsin Historical Museum, during the "Share Your Voice" public listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha. 

A guest writes down ideas on Post-It notes during an exercise at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


A guest writes down her thoughts about early concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

A guest writes down ideas on Post-It notes during an exercise at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


A guest writes down his thoughts about early concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

A guest holds up a concept exhibit design rendering as he makes comments March 13, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in Waukesha.


David Drake holds up a concept exhibit design rendering as he makes comments March 13, 2019 during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in Waukesha.

A guest shares her thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.


A guest shares her thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session at the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum.

A guest shares his thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.


A guest shares his thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.

Society Director Christian Øverland, left, and Bonnie Byrd, Executive Director for the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum, lead a discussion at the "Share Your Voice" new museum session on March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.


Wisconsin Historical Society Director Christian Øverland, left, and Bonnie Byrd, Executive Director for the Waukesha County Historical Society & Museum, lead a discussion at the "Share Your Voice" new museum session on March 13, 2019 in Waukesha.

 

A guest shares her thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.


Barb Eigenberger shares her thoughts during a discussion at the Society's March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha.

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.

WAUKESHA WORD CLOUD

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the March 13, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session in Waukesha were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the biggest type.