Guest Post, Exhibit Review: “Peoples of the Water,” at the Oshkosh Public Museum, Oshkosh Wisconsin

Nominated for an award from the American Association of State and Local History, the new permanent exhibit, “Peoples of the Water,” at the Oshkosh Public Museum (OPM) impresses in multiple ways.  The exhibit excels in its representation of Native peoples of Wisconsin, archaeology and geology, its innovative and engaging modes of presentation, and the extensive collaboration with Native people, scholars, community members, and teachers that went into its production.  The exhibit expertly responds to the past 30 years of scholarship in museum anthropology that demands that museum representation be critical and self-aware, ethical and responsible, and at the same time educate and build awareness of the peoples depicted.

From the start, the exhibit takes a self-critical view.  Inspired by input from the Menominee Nation Clan Council, a sign at the entrance acknowledges a cultural difference between “Western” and Native concepts of time, the former as linear and the latter as more circular.  The exhibit then embodies these differences in its circular layout.  Visitors do not have to progress through the space in a linear or chronological manner.  They may make choices and follow them wherever they may lead. 

 Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston
Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston

The Museum’s depth of collaboration is especially notable as the team polled local residents and worked with Wisconsin teachers and content experts in archeology and geology. The Museum consulted with Ho-chunk tribal members and worked extensively with members of the Menominee Clans Committee, a coalition of Menominee leaders from around the state who had worked previously with University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.  According to Museum Director, Brad Larson, Committee members provided input on exhibit design and interpretation, object use and placement, toured the initial construction, and reviewed artifacts to make sure they were acceptable for display.  As Mr. Larson said, “Several objects were removed from the storyline after this consultation, and we also modified how we interpreted certain pieces (email communication, April 19, 2018).”

The years of work that went into the exhibit show in the meticulous attention to detail.  Starting from the Ice Age in Wisconsin, visitors follow the first peoples of Wisconsin and geological and environmental change through the PaleoIndian, Archaic, Woodland, and Oneota eras into the Fur Trade.  The fur trade section contains an interactive map of North American trade prior to European contact that allows viewers to press a button to light up the trade route of particular items.  A “trap and trade” videogame helps children develop their problem-solving skills and introduces them to cultural change and the complexities of European-Native relationships.  From there, visitors of all ages may explore how archaeology “uncovers the past” and learn about Native peoples of the present especially through language and art.  It is an ambitious and successful project accomplished in only 2,000 square feet.

Undoubtedly, in such a small space, choices must be made in terms of content, on which the Museum should be commended for seeking and acting on extensive community input.  The only critique that I have stems from the representation of European and Native interaction in the Fur Trade era in that it neglects to mention the complex Métis society that developed in the area.  Indeed, Augustin Grignon, who is mentioned in the exhibit as founding the first permanent trading post in Winnebago County in 1818, was himself of both European and Native heritage.  Elaboration on Métis people in the Fox Valley could be added to the already rich, multimedia depictions and would connect historical representation to the experiences of many people in the Fox Valley today who have Native heritage.  The Director has responded already and the Museum plans to use future rotating exhibits to expand on the content in this permanent display.

 Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston
Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston

A strength of the presentation lies in how the exhibit creates a bridge for visitors to understand the historical, geological, and environmental past in Wisconsin.  If one follows the waterway painted on the floor that leads to the left, one enters a hallway created by glass cases that house abundant artifacts opposite a wall lined with life-sized photographs of outdoor Wisconsin scenes—a deer, a lake with geese.  These are scenes likely familiar to any Wisconsinite. In this hallway, one can peer past the multitude of arrowheads, examples of megafauna such as a giant beaver skeleton, mammoth femur, and giant elk antlers, and fur trade era guns, a woven sash, to read text that emphasizes the bridge to the past, for example, “You would recognize the climate of Woodland Oshkosh—it was like today.” 

At the same time, the exhibit responds to the learning styles and viewing habits of modern visitors, young and old, by casting off artifact labels in favor of video kiosks that individuals can navigate much as they would a computer screen, tablet, or cell phone.  At these tables, visitors can use a touch screen to choose eras and artifacts about which they want to learn more.  At another display, the “department store” deer, viewers can press a button for a certain tool and the corresponding part of the deer skeleton lights up.  As Director, Brad Larson, has pointed out, the museum team worked with a focus group of teachers to make the content correspond especially to fourth grade curriculum.  As I visited (twice) with my own children, an eighth grader and a fifth grader, and watched other children explore the exhibit, I could see the outcome was a stunning success.

I appreciated that while the exhibit is technologically sophisticated, it also promotes a relaxing and contemplative experience.  The lighting and color scheme are subdued, and the absence of labels allows one to reflect on the artifacts and then choose whether to seek out the expert explanations in the kiosks.  The life-sized recreation of a longhouse furthers this ambience as one may sit comfortably on a fur-covered bench and read Menominee and Ho-chunk stories available on laminated cards.  A container that visitors can squeeze to get a whiff of what it might have smelled like in a longhouse allows the multisensory experience to linger in the air.

 Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston
Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston

I was also impressed with the careful attention to language in the exhibit.  In subtle ways, the text and narrations use language that refers to Native people in more empowering ways through, for example, terms like “first people of Wisconsin” and the inclusion of Native speakers in audio narration.  A significant feature consists of a Wisconsin map in which all the place names are in Menominee.  The viewer can press a button and hear a Menominee speaker pronounce selected names, a contribution from the Menominee Clan Council.  In this way, the exhibit also brings viewers into the present along with photographs of contemporary tribal members and a Native artist’s beaded yoke and purse.

These elements, as well as the inclusion of Wisconsin scenery and the archaeological displays, encourage visitors to be more aware and think critically about the world around them.  The archaeological section, shaped substantially by the contributions of Dr. Jeffrey Behm of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, acknowledges archaeology’s checkered history with Native peoples while also challenging stereotypes of the discipline.  Dr. Behm’s voice reaches out from a quote on the wall to proclaim that around Lake Winnebago, “If you are in sight of water and your feet are dry, you are on an archaeological site.”  After reading this, visitors then walk over transparent flooring through which they can see a re-creation of an archaeological excavation complete with collection bag, brush, trowel, clipboard, and so on.  Transparent inserts in the adjacent wall show examples of items that might be found in different strata.  I can say that this is one of, if not the best, museum representation of archeology that I have seen.  I have hopes that it will attract a new generation of students to the discipline.

 Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston
Exhibition Design: Split Rock Studios, Photography: Phil Weston

The “Peoples of the Water” exhibit, in my opinion, should become a staple in every Wisconsin school’s curriculum.  It is a fantastic place to spark one’s continued learning—indeed, as my daughter clarified for me, with one’s cell phone, one can scan the “QR codes” displayed on the walls to link to the OPM website for more information and access to the Museum’s rich and varied collection of interest to scholars and researchers in many areas.

“Peoples of the Water” is a small, regional exhibit that has done big things.  I have mentioned many of the elements that most impressed me about the exhibit, yet there remain more details and depth that I do not have space to touch upon.  I have seen exhibits on Native American history and culture all over the country, and “Peoples of the Water” stands out as exceptional.  As a scholar, local resident, and parent, I wish to acknowledge the Oshkosh Public Museum and the “Peoples of the Water” exhibit as one that makes me eminently proud to live here.

Dr. Stephanie May de Montigny, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Chair, Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology

University of Wisconsin Oshkosk