Models of American Indian effigy mounds
The Wisconsin Historical Museum mounts excellent temporary exhibits. The recent collections of toys and video games were grand, and the new tribute to Milwaukee baseball also looks most promising. But visitors seeking the temporary exhibits ought to make time to see the permanent collection, too. The displays, which sprawl over three floors, chronicle Wisconsin living from 9500 B.C. to the Nintendo era. They are fascinating.
The permanent displays begin on the second floor and, starting with artifacts of Paleo Indians, proceed more or less chronologically up to the third and fourth floors. When I visited, a museum attendant suggested I take the elevator to the fourth floor and work my way down, the better to avoid climbing stairs. The walk backward through history quickly disoriented me, though, so I jumped down to the second floor's "People of the Woodlands" exhibit and started anew with the crossing of the Bering landmass 20,000 years ago -- a very good place to start.
The activities of the earliest Wisconsinites are a little mysterious, of course. But the first displays do hold fine stone spearheads and scrapers from 8000 B.C. and earlier, and even a fragment of delicately woven textile that is thousands of years old.
Much of this room is given over to the Middle Mississippian peoples that settled in Jefferson County 1,000 years ago. They built the mounds and other structures that have been reconstructed at Aztalan State Park, and at the Historical Museum is a recreation of one of their dwellings, a hut built of logs and clay. When visitors press a button outside the Aztalan house, a man's calm voice describes the structure, then concludes: "Thank you for visiting the Aztalan house."
Elsewhere on the second floor, visitors can step through a year in the lives of Ojibwe Indians in the 1800s, learn about the science of modern archeology, and muse over the mission work of 17th-century Jesuit priests. Visitors also can contemplate the depressing saga of white settlement in a series of displays about relations between native tribes and the U.S. government. "The United States preferred to purchase Indian land rather than take it by force of war," a placard notes.
Even as the federal government was marching Native Americans out of Wisconsin, though, white settlers were moving in. That story is told at the beginning of the exhibit that occupies the third and fourth floors, "On Common Ground: Two Hundred Years of Wisconsin History." These displays recall the earliest white settlers, including Welsh immigrants who dug for lead in the southwest part of the state. (A room in this section is decorated to resemble a mine.)
The story of Wisconsin immigration is fascinating, and it is particularly resonant in these troubled times. "Some Yankees," a display says, "saw foreign ways as potential threats to American society and sought to enact laws that would force ethnic groups to conform to their notions of morality and patriotism." Well, yes.
The rest of the third floor is given over to work and commerce in the state, with collections of artifacts from logging camps, farm kitchens and dairy operations. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle is prominently displayed, and a small room gathers items manufactured in Wisconsin, including Oscar Mayer wieners, a Trek bicycle and a Speed Queen washing machine, from Ripon.
On the fourth floor are exhibits covering Wisconsin leisure. Photographs and artifacts lovingly recall state fairs and vaudeville, as well as the live Chautauquas of the early 20th century, which brought culture and entertainment to the countryside.
These give way to the last major collection, which documents Wisconsin politics, and especially the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. A response to the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age, Progressivism had its avatar in Wisconsin governor and senator Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette, of Primrose. The exhibit gathers many artifacts that cast La Follette in a heroic light, as well as some that are altogether less flattering. In one vintage caricature La Follette, who famously opposed U.S. involvement in World War I, receives a chestful of decorations from Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The tribute to La Follette would be a fitting conclusion to the permanent collections, but around the corner is a final display, and a puzzling one: A dimly lit recreation of a suburban Wisconsin home of the early 1990s, complete with Pop-Tarts, board games and a Nintendo Entertainment System. The exhibit seems meant to teach us to be alert to history -- and future history -- all around us. But mostly it made me want to play Super Mario Brothers.