Major Exhibit Changes at CVM!

Posted: October 8, 2013

In late October 1991, 22 years ago, Paths of the People: The Ojibwe in the Chippewa Valley opened at CVM after 30 months of planning, design, and construction. More than 400 people attended the opening and heard writer Denise Sweet (White Earth) and musician Frank Montano (Red Cliff). Eugene Begay (Lac Courte Oreilles) and Ernest St. Germaine (Lac du Flambeau) conducted a pipe ceremony, explained in English and conducted in Ojibwe.

A little over 13 months later, in early December 1992, CVM held another major reception for Settlement and Survival: Building Towns in the Chippewa Valley, 1850-1925. The Associated Press noted that the work of museum staff and volunteers "shines through in great detail."

Those two exhibits have been the bedrock of CVM's interpretive program for more than two decades now. Almost 500,000 visitors, including more than 115,000 children in school groups have had the chance to see Paths, awarded grants by the Wisconsin Humanities Committee, and Settlement, awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Richard St. Germaine, former tribal chair at Lac Courte Oreilles and professor emeritus in history at UWEC, said, "Paths of the People represents much more than another exhibit of another Indian people. It is a national model, a sensitive demonstration of a preservation of Indian history told from the voices of the people themselves."

Writing in the Journal of American History, Benjamin Filene called Settlement and Survival "poignant," "broad," and "a coherent historical argument," which he noted was "a significant departure" for the museum from the work it had done in previous exhibits.

But, as solid and lovely as they are, the exhibits are only platforms to illuminate history. As our understanding of history expands and our ability to tell stories advances, the museum has a responsibility to the public to build new bedrock platforms for our regional story to rest upon. And so, this November, the sun will set on Paths and Settlement, and by next year -- as our members should know by now -- Changing Currents: Reinventing the Chippewa Valley will be the place under CVM's roof where we tell these stories.

Why the change? Often museum exhibits, while taking up large themes, define themselves topically, both in their physical spaces and logical structures. This is currently the case in Paths, which tells the story of the Ojibwe Indians from their arrival in the Chippewa Valley in the 1700s on into the 1990s, and Settlement, which presents transformations from 1850 to 1925.

The savvy visitor knows these histories overlap, of course. But in separating them, by space and topic, we suggest intuitively that these are separate stories rather than strands in a single braid. Both exhibits leave much of the recent past unexplored.

The new Changing Currents exhibit represents twenty years of learning, collecting, and re-examining the story of the Chippewa Valley. It begins before Europeans came to the region, brings the history up into the 2000s, and examines how many groups interacted: Ojibwe and French, workers and owners, German and Norwegian, children and adults, new immigrants and established residents, men and women.

Through Changing Currents, the museum will place these stories face-to-face, re-defining the narrative for students of our history, whether they are casual weekend visitors, third graders on field trips, or web surfers across the globe.

It also gives the museum the chance to explore topics and to exhibit artifacts the public has expressed great interest in: topics from the fur trade to the American Civil War to the Hmong journey to America; artifacts ranging from a KKK robe to the Big Ben replica that sat for years in London Square Mall.

Said museum editor Frank Smoot, "I think we can honestly say to our museum members and public that these two major exhibits - Settlement and Survival and Paths of the People, our friends for twenty years - represented the museum's best efforts at telling our story. We hope and trust we can say the same about the new kid."

Deconstruction of exhibits Paths of the People and Settlement and Survival began on November 18, with the first chapters of the new exhibit Changing Currents set to be unveiled on July 4, 2014.

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