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Share Your Voice: La Crosse

Area residents discuss plans for a new Wisconsin history museum

Share Your Voice: La Crosse | Wisconsin Historical Society

 Billy Bergeron, vice president of the La Crosse Historical Society Board of Directors, enjoys a laugh with guests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.

Billy Bergeron, vice president of the La Crosse Historical Society Board of Directors, enjoys a laugh with fellow guests as he makes a comment during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.  

Story and photos by Dean Witter
Wisconsin Historical Foundation 

LA CROSSE — With their city surrounded on one side by the rushing waters of the Mississippi River and on the other side by gorgeous, towering bluffs, it’s no surprise that natural resources and centuries of exploration and settlement of one of the most scenic areas of Wisconsin were among the most-discussed topics at the Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Share Your Voice” new museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

 “The history of all of the cultures that have settled in the Driftless area have informed us in terms of civilization and ways of living and how we take care of one another and take care of the environment,” said Robert Mullen, a La Crosse County Historical Society (LCHS) board member. “There’s so much to learn from the thousands of years of history and cultural settling in this area.”

“La Crosse is the shape it is because of the place it is, and that’s really important,” added LCHS Executive Director Peggy Derrick.

Said others:

“The river is woven into our history.”

“We have more French names here than probably any other state.”

“There is so much Native American history in this area, there should be a separate museum devoted just for that.”

EnlargePeggy Derrick, Executive Director of the La Crosse County Historical Society, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new Wisconsin history museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.


Peggy Derrick, Executive Director of the La Crosse County Historical Society, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new Wisconsin history museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library. Derrick's organization and the library co-hosted the event with the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The comments were among a robust series of discussions during the “Share Your Voice” session, which was one of more than 40 that the Society is holding across the state in an effort to share early concept exhibit design plans and seek public ideas to be included in the new Wisconsin history museum it plans to build by 2024 to replace its aging and undersized museum on Wisconsin’s Capitol Square in Madison.

The event was led by Christian Øverland, the Ruth & Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society. He was welcomed by leaders of two local organizations that co-hosted the session: Derrick, of the La Crosse County Historical Society, and Anita Doering, Archives Manager of the La Crosse Public Library.

Derrick pointed out the fact that La Crosse is in the very early stages of planning for a new history museum of its own.

“I’m going to be watching carefully because the State Historical Society is doing what we are going to be doing soon,” she said. “So I’m going to be learning just as much as you are.”

“You’re why we came here,” Øverland told the guests. “We are here to learn about your stories, how you want to be represented and what (local) elements you think are really important for a museum.”

EnlargeAnita Doering, Archives Manager for the co-host La Crosse Public Library, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session on April 17, 2019.


Anita Doering, Archives Manager for the co-host La Crosse Public Library, welcomes guests to the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session on April 17, 2019, and introduces Christian Øverland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Øverland noted the Society’s impact across the state through its many outreach programs in schools and its partnerships with 400 local history organizations, as well as being the home of the State Historic Preservation Office, which had awarded historic preservation tax credits to 22 projects in La Crosse, worth $80 million.

“We’re not just a place in Madison,” he said. “We’re your resource. … We are the state historical society, but we cover the entire state.”

The event was the 16th public session since the statewide outreach effort began in October 2018, but it was the first to showcase rare historic artifacts from the Society’s world-renowned collections.

Guests were able to enjoy an up-close look at artifacts including a tattered sweater worn by Polish Catholic Holocaust survivor (and eventual UW-Madison professor) Tadeusz "Ted" Kowalczyk while he was a prisoner for three years at the German Concentration Camp in Auschwitz, and several frames from a series of the only remaining original 1849 sketches of the Oregon Trail by artist James F. Wilkins during his trek from Missouri to California during the famed Gold Rush. 

EnlargeLa Crosse County Historical Society board member Robert Mullen, left, inspects a sweater worn by Holocaust survivor "Ted" Kowalczyk while he was a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.


La Crosse County Historical Society board member Robert Mullen, left, inspects a sweater worn by Holocaust survivor "Ted" Kowalczyk while he was a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. It was one of the rare artifacts from the Wisconsin Historical Society's collections that was shown at the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

The artifacts are examples of the impressive national and international scope of the collections of the Society, which was founded in 1846, two years before Wisconsin became a state. But, more importantly, Øverland said, they’re examples of the kind of artifacts the Society is unable to display at the current museum, which doesn’t have the temperature, humidity and light conditions necessary to safeguard delicate objects.

Part of the goal of the new museum is “to democratize” the collections of the Society by creating a state-of-the-art environment in which they can be shared with the public.

“We can’t show these inside the current museum,” Øverland said. “It’s an old hardware store. They would deteriorate too fast. But we brought them here to you because that’s part of what we’re doing: We want to show you these objects that we can exhibit in the new museum.”

Øverland introduced a video about the new museum project and its storytelling theme before leading three workshop-type activities in which guests shared topics of local importance, reacted to early concept exhibit design renderings and told stories of memorable museum experiences.

EnlargeLisa Saywell, of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Library and Archives, right, talks about one of the rare artifacts brought to La Crosse: Several frames from the only remaining original 1849 sketches of the Oregon Trail by artist James F. Wilkins.


Lisa Saywell, right, Director of Public Services for the Wisconsin Historical Society's Library and Archives, talks about one of the rare artifacts brought to La Crosse for the "Share Your Voice" session: Several frames from a series of the only remaining original 1849 sketches of the Oregon Trail by artist James F. Wilkins. Looking at the sketches are, from left, Wisconsin Historical Society Board of Curators member Ramona Gonzalez, Wisconsin Historical Society Director Christian Øverland, and La Crosse County Historical Society Executive Director Peggy Derrick. 

During the first activity, attendees used Post-It notes to share things about the La Crosse area or state in general that make Wisconsin, Wisconsin. Society staff collected the notes and posted them on five theme boards posted across the front of the room and Øverland led a discussion about some of them.

As previously noted, guests took great pride in the environment and geography of the area, and those who protected it over centuries, including the large and still-vibrant Ho-Chunk population.

There were multiple mentions of the Mississippi River’s influence for both good (shipping industry) and bad (flooding).

“How old were you in the ’65 flood?” one guest wrote.

“Sometimes it’s not just the glory days, but the history of tragedies that binds us, that defines us,” Øverland said.

Another guest urged the Society to focus on the human story of La Crosse, “the settlers, the founders of La Crosse. Humanize them, talk about Grandad’s Bluff and why it survived. Talk about people.”

Øverland agreed. “History isn’t about objects, it’s about people.”

“The Hmong population in the state has a very large presence in this area, and within the agriculture industry as well,” a man said. “I think telling that story is important. We have a very significant Hmong Cultural Center here that has done a lot for the community.”

Another guest made sure a centuries-old industry in which he worked was mentioned.

“I can’t forget my bread-and-butter for the last 43 years, and that’s the brewing industry of western Wisconsin,” he said with a smile, prompting a chorus of knowing laughs.

Beer production, indeed, helped put La Crosse on the national map thanks to G. Heileman Brewing Co., which was founded in 1858 (as The City Brewery) and eventually brought its signature Old Style lager to the national market. The brewery’s towers, which were painted to look like a six-pack of Old Style, were a must-see La Crosse tourist attraction for years.

EnlargeGuests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session in La Crosse commented on concept exhibit design renderings, including this one of an orientation area featuring a video wall that has been transformed to host a public program.


Guests at the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" session in La Crosse commented on several concept exhibit design renderings, including this one of an orientation area featuring a video wall, which has been transformed to host a public program. In this concept, Society underwater archaeologists are broadcasting live from a Great Lakes shipwreck site and taking questions from guests at the museum and from cities across the state.

The western Wisconsin brewing industry also included Leinenkugel’s, founded in 1867 about 95 miles north in Chippewa Falls.

In the next activity, guests reviewed several concept exhibit design renderings developed by Gallagher & Associates, the internationally renowned firm based in Washington, D.C.

Most guests indicated that they liked an image depicting the Introduction and Orientation Media Experience area, featuring a large video wall that could be transformed into a digital distance learning or program space that would connect guests at the museum to people across the state. However, there was a robust conversation about the role of technology in a museum.

EnlargeJarrod Roll, Director of the Monroe County Local History Room, shares his thoughts about a concept exhibit design rendering for the new Wisconsin history museum during the "Share Your Voice" session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.


Jarrod Roll, Director of the Monroe County Local History Room, shares his thoughts about the introduction area concept exhibit design rendering for the new Wisconsin history museum during the "Share Your Voice" session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library. "I love the idea of being able to personalize (images on the video screens) to a group," he said.

“I love the idea of being able to personalize it to a group,” said Jarrod Roll, Director of the Monroe County Local History Room.

“It’s so overwhelming, it just draws your eye,” a woman added. “You can’t miss a picture. You have to look at it, it’s so massive.”

“The first impression is vital — it has to be exciting,” said another guest. “This makes me want to see what’s in the next room.”

Another man, however, warned that guests — especially younger in age — would have access to similar technology or images in their pocket.

“I like the idea of a welcome screen,” he said, “but … you have to show us something that I can’t get on my phone. … The minute that (screen) doesn’t become interesting, I’m going to be looking at something more interesting on my phone.”

Roll added a note of caution about the dangers of relying on technology that could fail due to power outages or other glitches, leading to "out of order" signs. He suggested that the Society include larger three-dimensional objects from the collections in the orientation area (perhaps a log cabin or the Society's 1969 Wienermobile?) to balance the technology of the big screens.

“The volume of this space is huge,” he said. “Use your volume to your advantage.”

A rendering called “Agricultural Ingenuity” that depicted a canoe, wild ricing and a cranberry harvest in their recreated natural environments also drew mixed reactions.

EnlargeA guest shares his concerns about the use of technology and large video screens in a new Wisconsin history museum. "You have to show us something that I can't get on my phone," he said.


A guest shares his concerns about the use of technology and large video screens in a new Wisconsin history museum ("You have to show us something that I can't get on my phone."), as well as recreating outdoor environments in exhibits ("The artificial is never as good as the real thing.").

A woman liked “that I can get inside the canoe and the water will turn on,” she said. “I’m participating instead of observing.”

“To me, it’s an opportunity,” Roll added. “Static exhibits are a challenge. This is a unique mix of the static and the immersive.”

However, another man wasn’t as convinced.

“Why would you go inside a building to see the outdoors?” he asked. “If you want to see cranberries, you go to a cranberry marsh. If you want to see the woods or wetland areas, go to (those areas). Don’t go inside to see an artificially created thing. The artificial is never as good as the real thing.”

Øverland noted that instead of being behind glass like in many museums, artifacts “would be out in the open” and on display within a scene to better tell the personal stories associated with them.

“We don’t want to replicate, I totally agree with you,” said Øverland.

He asked how many guests had visited the Coal Mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and compared it to that. “The idea here is to give people a sense of history the context of where it happened,” he said.

A woman suggested that it could inspire a museum visitor to explore Wisconsin. “These exhibits might make people want to go see the cranberry bogs,” she said.

Another woman asked if there would be real artifacts, and room for bigger, real items from the Society’s collections.

Øverland pointed out that nearly all the objects seen in the renderings were actual artifacts in the Society’s collections and that the scenes depicted were actually small exhibit areas, perhaps 250 square feet, within a much larger 15,000-square-foot room. There would be plenty of room to display many large artifacts, he said, adding that the renderings aren’t even final.

“These are just concepts to talk about, not the exact thing that you’re going to look at (once the museum is built),” Øverland said. “These are concepts to talk about general ideas about new ways to connect people to history. It is showing you techniques” such as exhibiting them in the open vs. behind glass.

After discussing each of the renderings, Øverland closed the session by asking guests to share some of their favorite museum experiences. They included visits to the Smithsonian in Washington, The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan (which Øverland led before coming to the Wisconsin Historical Society), the Arabia Museum in Kansas City and the Minnesota History Center.

Favorite experiences closer to home included the World War II submarine at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc (“I felt like I was there” in the war); the Streets of Old Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Public Museum (“It’s the closest you can get to time travel”) and the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, one of the Society’s 12 historic sites and museums across the state.

Øverland closed the session by thanking guests for taking time out of their evening to share their thoughts and participate in such a lively discussion. Among those in attendance who Øverland acknowledged at the start of the event were local state Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), as well as Wisconsin Historical Society Board of Curators (BOC) president Brian Rude of Coon Valley and fellow BOC members Judge Ramona Gonzalez of La Crosse and Sam Scinta of Onalaska, and former board member Pat Boge.

“You are at ground level,” Øverland told guests. “This is a museum designed by the people for the people. … We want this to be the peoples’ museum. We want it to be active and alive.”

 

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the largest type.

La Crosse "Share Your Voice" Word Cloud

Suggestions made on Post-It notes during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse were turned into this word cloud, with the most suggested words in the largest type.

Tim Acklin, Historic Preservation Planner for the City of La Crosse, left, enjoys a chuckle with other guests during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session at the La Crosse Public Library.

Tim Acklin, Historic Preservation Planner for the City of La Crosse, left, enjoys a chuckle with other guests during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session at the La Crosse Public Library.

A young guest named Kevin Hundt offers his thoughts about a concept exhibit design rendering during the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.

A young guest named Kevin Hundt offers his thoughts about a concept exhibit design rendering during the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.

A guest makes his point while discussing an idea during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum session in La Crosse.


A guest makes his point while discussing an idea during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum session in La Crosse.

 A woman offers her thoughts with fellow guests during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum engagement session in La Crosse.

Jenny Roets offers her thoughts with fellow guests during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum engagement session in La Crosse.

 A woman hands her Post-It notes  to a Wisconsin Historical Society staff worker during the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse. The notes were used to offer suggestions on what to include in a new museum.

Suzanne Young hands her Post-It notes to a Wisconsin Historical Society staff worker during the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse. The notes were used to offer suggestions on what to include in a new museum.

 A couple listens to another guest talk about a potential new museum exhibit during the "Share Your Voice" listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

Helen and Donald Flynn of La Crosse listen to another guest talk about a potential new museum exhibit during the "Share Your Voice" listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

 A man examines new museum materials during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

George Italiano examines new museum materials during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

 La Crosse County Historical Society President Candace Brown makes a point during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse.

La Crosse County Historical Society President Candace Brown makes a point during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse.

A man offers his thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

John Stuber offers his thoughts during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

A woman offers her thoughts with fellow guests during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum engagement session in La Crosse.

A woman offers her thoughts with fellow guests during the April 17, 2019 "Share Your Voice" new museum engagement session in La Crosse.

 A man enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse.

A man enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session in La Crosse. 

Jeannette Kaus enjoys a laugh as she hands her Post-It note to Kara O'Keeffe of the Society during the "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.


Jeannette Kaus of Tomah enjoys a laugh as she hands her Post-It notes with new museum ideas to Kara O'Keeffe of the Society during the "Share Your Voice" public listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.

Hannah Scholze, museum services associate at the Monroe County Local History Room, writes comments on a booklet of concept exhibit design renderings during the "Share Your Voice" session in La Crosse.


Hannah Scholze, museum services associate at the Monroe County Local History Room, writes comments on a booklet of concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

Judge Ramona Gonzalez, left, and her husband John Stuber enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the "Share Your Voice" session  in La Crosse. Gonzalez is a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators.


Judge Ramona Gonzalez, left, and her husband John Stuber enjoy a laugh during a discussion at the "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse. Gonzalez is a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators.

Don Kaus examines a booklet of concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.


Don Kaus of Tomah examines a booklet of concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

Patt Boge, former member of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators, listens as other guests offer their thoughts about new museum exhibits during the Society's "Share Your Voice" session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.


Patt Boge, former member of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators, listens during a discussion about new museum exhibits at the Society's "Share Your Voice" session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.

Brian Rude, president of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators, listens to guests share their favorite museum experiences during the "Share Your Voice" session on April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.


Brian Rude, president of the Wisconsin Historical Society's Board of Curators, listens to guests share their favorite museum experiences during the Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum listening session on April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

Local state Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) enjoys a laugh and looks over concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.


Local state Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) enjoys a laugh and looks over concept exhibit design renderings during the Wisconsin Historical Society's new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 at the La Crosse Public Library.

La Crosse County Historical Society board member Robert Mullen enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.


La Crosse County Historical Society board member Robert Mullen enjoys a laugh during the Wisconsin Historical Society's "Share Your Voice" new museum public listening session April 17, 2019 in La Crosse.