Wisconsin Historical Museum Exhibit

Native American Women in the Great Lakes Fur Trade

In the Summer of 2016, I was one of three exhibit development interns at the Wisconsin Historical Museum (WHM) in Madison, Wisconsin. The WHM is one of the eleven historical sites and museums managed by the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). Our job was to design, develop and install an exhibit about Native Americans during the fur trade era in Great Lakes Region using artifacts from the WHS collection. We began meeting in June at the WHM, working closely with the assistant curator of Native American collections and the WHS graphic designer to select artifacts, develop and write story lines, and set up the physical space and graphic elements. We opened the exhibit to the public on August 26, 2016.

We wrote the script and outline over the course of four weeks. The outline was used by the graphic designer and education staff to create the physical exhibit and create tour dialogue around the exhibit. The scripts include individual object, primary and secondary label scripts that describe the artifacts on display, their significance and the main themes in the exhibit. I was primarily responsible for the research on movement of Native American tribes throughout the Great Lakes Region and the role of Native tribes in the success of the Fur Trade. We all contributed to the script by writing on our areas of individual research. My research on migration of tribes also allowed for the creation of the maps that appear in the exhibit.

This internship at the WHM also met my SLIS Practicum requirement, so the virtual poster was an assignment during the practicum summer class. The reflection was written for myself to document my thoughts on my experience at WHM and working with Native American artifacts and stories.

The development of this exhibit required me to navigate the complicated relationship between an institution of power, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the cultural knowledge of Wisconsin Native peoples, and information about their history presented to the public.

The WHS is the authority on the history of Wisconsin; they publish textbooks and resources for educators across the state. The Wisconsin Historical Museum, managed by the WHS, is the state museum, educating visitors about the history of the state. The museum controls access to cultural significant artifacts from indigenous peoples of Wisconsin. Since the WHS doesn’t employ anyone from Wisconsin tribal communities themselves, the power to educate the public about Wisconsin Native history is given to non-Native employees of the state.

I did recognize that I was being asked to tell stories that were not my own. I was aware of the relationship between the WHS, its’ position of power, and underrepresented communities, but I felt limited, as I didn’t have the authority to make real structural changes that would equalize the balance of power (e.g. repatriating artifacts, hiring tribal members or sharing control of Native collections and exhibits). Despite my limited authority, I made efforts towards a more accurate and just representation of Native history in the museum by using Native scholarship and published tribal histories as primary sources for the exhibit story lines and images.

Image from Adventures in Travel blog