Published: December 21, 2021
The Wisconsin Historical Society, founded in 1846, recently selected Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) as the exhibit designer for the state’s new history museum project on the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisc. Design projects are routinely awarded in the museum world, but the newsworthy bit about this is that it is for a $120 million museum – in Wisconsin. We picked our collective jaws off the floor and reached out to the historical society’s director and chief executive officer, Christian Overland, to get his take on making Wisconsin’s new history museum a national attraction.
So that’s a notable sum. How is it being raised?
We have raised the amount already for the building. We raised $70 million from the state in bonding, and then we’ve raised $36 million in private funds for the museum, too. And the rest, $15 million for an endowment, is ongoing. The museum is expected to open in 2026, so we’ll have our endowment in place by that point in time. We’re doing quite well. We’re very fortunate to have a state that loves history, honors history – the legislature, the governor and the citizens. Private support has been terrific and continues to be so. We’re living in a time where history is important. People want to learn from it, looking to the past to be inspired and hopefully build a better future using lessons learned from the past.
Why did you select RAA as exhibition designer?
Since we’re using a combination of public and private money, we needed to have a robust selection bidding process. The request for proposals attracted a great national response, and when it came down to it, we were looking for experience designing an entire museum and of course cost.
What goals will be addressed in creating a new 100,000-square-foot history museum in the heart of Madison?
The main one is mission-effectiveness – the mission of connecting people to the past, collecting, preserving and sharing stories. The real purpose is to transform people’s lives.
The largest goal is to have a benefit to society, culture and the economy. When we look at that, we think of three main pillars. The first is really creating the center for American history, and the second one is being a flagship for the entire society. We have 12 museums and historic sites across the state, and this is going to be the flagship venue for us that will connect to all the other venues as well. And a place where we can present our world class collections. The third is being a hub for community engagement, and this is really an important one. Whereas the first pillar is being a center of American history because we have these terrific North American collections, we’re going to be connecting with all 72 counties in Wisconsin, making sure that communities are not only able to come and see this incredible history but to also be a part of it.
How many items are in the society’s collection? What are some of the key objects?
It’s amazing, over 290 million. There’s the North American History Library and archives, which is considered, as far as collections go, to be second only to the US Library of Congress. And then there’s the Three-D artifact collection that ranges from transportation, agriculture, technology to social and cultural, including Pop culture. You really can’t write a good book on early American history without using the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection. This can also be said for the American civil rights history in terms of using our collection. To give you an idea, we have a social justice collection of American civil rights material that started in the early 1960s by actively collecting during the movement and then going back and getting collections too. For instance, we have the Little Rock Nine Papers, the Freedom Summer Papers, the CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) Papers, and the Highlander Folk School archive from Tennessee where Rosa Parks was trained. We have all of those collections and many more here in Wisconsin. Along with the largest collection of Hollywood film and script material outside of Hollywood. That’s a partnership we have with the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Film and Theater Research.
The museum will democratize all of these great collections and make them available to the public in a variety of ways – exhibitions; through our own press, which publishes 20 books a year, digitally and then creating lesson plans for educators.
You came aboard the society in 2018, an exciting time as it prepared to explore ways to upgrade the Wisconsin Historical Museum. What have been your main priorities over the past three years?
When the board hired me, they gave me three main priorities. First, initiate the state archive preservation facility, an almost 200,000-square-foot facility that is state of the art for collections storage, but more meaningful because that’s where our curators, librarians and archivists are working to create access to these treasures. This facility also houses conservation labs as well as our Tribal Care suite for our American Indian collections so elders can work and use the collections. The second was to fundraise and build a new history museum for Wisconsin. And then the third one is to evolve the Wisconsin Historical Society into a national presence where people across the United States find relevance in the stories that we tell.
Before you were the executive vice president of the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. What were some of your key initiatives there?
I had been there for almost 26 years. When I left I was executive vice president and chief historian. Key initiatives? The restoration of Greenfield Village that reopened in 2003. Developing the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in 2005. The collections digitization process and new web assets and educational programming that really focused on the process of innovation and entrepreneurship. And refreshing Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, which is 405,000 square feet, one big exhibit floor of eight acres, with exhibitions, which are terrific story points, touchstones that demonstrate the process of innovation in America.
As both a state agency and a membership organization, the society’s board includes eight statutory appointments and up to 30 curators who are selected according to its constitution and bylaws. Can you describe how this works, especially in terms of being able to collaborate with architects and exhibition design firms to create a museum?
The historical society was formed two years before Wisconsin statehood. It’s evolved over the years but started off as a membership organization, and it never left that. When we merged into the state function, acting as an independent state agency, we became a hybrid because we do have a statute in Wisconsin law that allows us to operate with a 501(3)(c) institution. It’s really not that hard to navigate because it’s codified by law. What’s great about it is you have the best of both worlds – being supported by government, an agency working for the people, and you have the best in working with donors and a membership organization. We have a combination of a private board and an appointed board from the government, so that works really well, too. Members of the board are elected from a nominating process.
The society says its mission is to connect people to the past by collecting, preserving and sharing stories. What are some of these stories in addition to the Mississippi River and fur trade, which loom large in Wisconsin history?
We have a historic preservation office, archaeology, library, archives and collections, the press, the museum and historic sites, and formal and informal education, so we have a lot going on. Here’s something that just happened a month and half ago. We actually have an underwater archaeology team that takes care of the shipwrecks on the coast of Wisconsin as well as inland waters. One of our underwater archaeologists was cruising with what they call an underwater scooter in Lake Mendota in Madison. She was with a colleague, and she turned and looked, and she saw an unusual piece of wood at the bottom of the lake about 30 feet down. Dugout canoes made by American Indians are found sometimes by people pulling them out of swamps and the like. American Indians used to bury dugout canoes over the winter but this one was further out in the lake. She didn’t know it at time, but she went back and started pulling some dirt away and thought it was a canoe. Another archaeologist from headquarters joined her and they went out in a research boat, and she dove down again and realized it was a dugout canoe. So we had it carbon dated and found out it was from the year 800. We contacted the American Indian nations and let them know what we found. We were getting some advice from some experts in the field who told us that it was because of the clay sediment it was under that made it survive. We decided to bring it up and recover it. The canoe also had net weights on it for fishing nets, These are hand-chiseled flattened rocks that were made to hang fishing nets. The canoe will now be preserved. It’s in water for the next three years at our historic preservation facility. We’re cleaning it slowly and stabilizing it. But it’s fascinating. It’s 16 feet long, whereas most canoes are 8-9 feet. And this is the first one we’ve known about that had net stones.
At this time of year, it’s a given that history museums will mark the holidays with some kind of program geared to historic homes. What did the society have on tap in 2021?
At Old World Wisconsin, which is a 600-acre historic site right outside of Milwaukee, we had an event called “Home for the Holidays” where guests discovered the vibrant holiday traditions brought to Wisconsin by our immigrant ancestors. Old World Wisconsin incudes 60 beautifully restored structures that have been moved to the site from all over Wisconsin that document immigration from the various cultures that have lived here. At Villa Louis, which is a wonderful Victorian mansion in Prairie du Chien, southwestern Wisconsin, we had it fully decorated as it was in the late Nineteenth Century so guests could experience the magic of a Victorian holiday celebration.
– W.A. Demers
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