Wisconsin State Historical Society Museum - Madison

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Wisconsin Historical Museum
Wisconsin Historical Museum


The Badger State; The Dairy State; The World's Toolbox; America's Breadbasket ... how did Wisconsin end up with these names? Who was Fighting Bob La Follette? Did Wisconsin have a Socialist Governor? Who were the first people to settle in Wisconsin? These questions and more are answered at the Wisconsin State Historical Society Museum on the Capitol Square in Madison.

From Aztalan to French fur traders, to the influx of Northern Europeans,  Welsh miners, loggers, steamship captains, from farmers to industrialists, from war heroes to fine artists - the makeup of Wisconsin's people has changed and diversified through thousands of years to make it the great state it is today. The State Historical Museum displays real artifacts from all of these diverse cultures and professions - a tall task.






We begin our journey on the second floor, a floor entirely devoted to the American Indians who have inhabited Wisconsin for several thousand years. This shabby floor of out-dated exhibits and faded environmental graphics leaves much to be desired. Thankfully, there are many other museums of history in Wisconsin who have plowed more funding and careful design into exhibits of the people who have the longest claim to Wisconsin. Still, you will find many artifacts that are themselves amazing if their presentation is not. Stone tools from the mysterious mound builders and exquisite bead work of the Objibwe Nation. The powerful, and more recently wealthy, first nations of Wisconsin might soon find the desire to present their incredible history in their own museum on the Capitol Square - one surely could fill four floors of exhibits.

Now, it is my policy as a blogger to never write a negative review. It's not that I do not write the truth, but rather that I avoid telling stories that might be a downer. I believe that the WI historical museum has done just the same. There is a wall mural exhibit in the American Indian space of this museum which presents treaties signed between The Territory or The Sate and Indian Nations here in Wisconsin. But, conspicuously missing from this exhibit are such important historical events as Assimilation - "kill the indian, save the man!" One of Wisconsin's founding fathers was William F Vilas who served as Secretary of the Interior and was one of the leading advocates for the Dawes Act; and, who was responsible for brutal land bargains which left American Indian Nations in total poverty which persists today. But, yet there was no mention of this in the WI Historical Museum. If the first floor of exhibits is any indication, I think we can predict that the next two floors of exhibits will take a similarly gauzy view of Wisconsin History.

Mock-up of a Fur Trading Post at Wisconsin Historical Museum
Moving up to the third floor we find ourselves immersed within a more typical museum experience of the 1990's. Still these exhibits feel tired and awkwardly presented. This floor is devoted to history of European immigrants to Wisconsin, their trades and industries which formed Wisconsin into the state it now is.

We can look in on a French fur trading post - the first major European styled commercial enterprise in Wisconsin. We move on to artifacts of the Welsh miners from the driftless region of the state. And, alongside these are exhibits devoted to logging. The term Badger state comes from a derisive term for miners as people called them badgers - or ugly scrappy animals who lived in the hillside. The miners took the insult and wore it as a badge of honor.


Glass Milk Bottles at the Wisconsin Historical Museum


Next in the procession of Wisconsin's economic history are exhibits featuring artifacts of early farming, farming innovation, and of course our famed dairy industry. Wisconsin was historically a wheat growing state - earning the reputation as the Breadbasket of America. Dairy wasn't really a big deal. But as the Northern half of the state became more settled - immigrants who had imagined farming the fertile lands of the Midwest found the rocky terrain of Wisconsin's northwoods to be too difficult to cultivate - so the raising of livestock and the making of products such as butter, milk, and cheese took off. This is how Wisconsin became known as The Dairyland.


Nash Automobile - Wisconsin Historical Museum

All the while, Milwaukee and the Lake Michigan coastline was becoming an industrial powerhouse. Milwaukee eventually was given the title of The World's Toolbox for its many foundries and tool and die makers. In the 20th Century the transportation industry led to such industrial giants as Nash Automobiles and Harley Davidson Motorcycles.

On the fourth and final floor we learn about Wisconsin's political history and a little bit about the daily lives of Wisconsinites. Progressive politics reigned supreme in the early half of the 20th century and socialist/progressive government led to the expansive park system and ultimately to the thriving tourism industry we enjoy today. These political developments also led the nation in establishing labor reforms and protections as well as such progressive (radical) ideas as allowing women to vote.

Women's Suffrage Artifacts at Wisconsin Historical Museum

What was surely considered extremist radical socialism in those days now seems normal to us - that workers should be paid fairly, work a 40 hour work week and be paid overtime for hours beyond that, that children should not be forced to work twelve hour days deep in mines, that women should be able to vote, that blacks should have equal rights, that parks and recreational lands should be free and available to all people, that water and electricity should be public utilities available to everyone for a reasonable price. Without the perspective of history we lose sight of the importance of such innovations. It is important in making decisions today to consider what life would be like if not for the high ideals of our Wisconsin forefathers.

The Wisconsin Historical museum leaves much to be desired. There are surely many missing chapters of the Wisconsin story. For example, we only catch a glancing view of Wisconsin's rich nautical history, the vibrancy of commerce on the Mississippi River, leisure and pleasure, arts and crafts. The main focus seems to be Wisconsin trade, profession, and industry. This is more of an economic history museum. I'm guessing that funding sources has alot to do with this. Still, a visit to this museum that only costs a $4 suggested donation is good for the children. And, perhaps, some of the children who work across the street and purport to govern us ought to hear the stories of Wisconsin's roots as well.Surely an informed government and an informed society would not fall into the same pits which have already once before trapped us.

This is why there  is a need to tell the real story and the full story of Wisconsin History. History isn't always that pretty - in fact, most historically noteworthy events are the products of conflict and divisive debate. We live in divisive times now. So, it would be  appropriate to look back with clear eyes to see how the struggles of the past were resolved. Showcasing artifacts and tokens of chosen moments in history is not enough for a museum of history. A museum narrowly focused on one state's history needs to tell the story of how these things happened, cause and effect.

What dire circumstances drove Europeans to immigrate to the Wisconsin? Did immigrants always arrive to what they expected? Were some of them swindled out of their land by land sharks? Was the land that the State Capitol is built on part of somebody's scheme to get rich quick? What impact did railroads have on towns that succeeded and towns that died? How difficult was it to navigate a logging raft through The Narrows - how many loggers died doing this? How did industry improve our lives, how did unregulated industry pollute our environment? What happened when your log cabin went up in flames before there was home insurance and fire departments? What would it be like to run of food during the middle of a harsh winter in the Wisconsin frontier? What happened to our thriving industry in the rust belt? Why did the jobs leave Milwaukee in shambles for decades? How did Milwaukee reinvent itself?

There are so many questions about Wisconsin History that are left unanswered as I leave the Wisconsin Historical Museum.


Directions, Map, and Information



FEE: $4 suggested donation
HOURS: Tuesday thru Saturday from 9am - 4pm




Address for your GPS: 30 North Carroll Street Madison, WI 53703

| coordinates: 43.074680, -89.386191 |

From Milwaukee1.5 Hours
From Madisonn/s
From Green Bay2.5 Hours
From Wausau2.5 Hours
From Minneapolis3.5 Hours
From Chicago2.5 Hours



Photos


Wisconsin Historical Museum
Wisconsin Historical Museum

Nash Automobile - Wisconsin Historical Museum
Nash Automobile - Wisconsin Historical Museum

Nash Automobile - Wisconsin Historical Museum
Nash Automobile - Wisconsin Historical Museum
Wisconsin Historical Museum - Madison
Wisconsin Historical Museum - Madison

Mining Artifacts at the Wisconsin History Museum
Mining Artifacts at the Wisconsin History Museum

Women's Suffrage Artifacts at Wisconsin Historical Museum
Women's Suffrage Artifacts at Wisconsin Historical Museum

Glass Milk Bottles at the Wisconsin Historical Museum
Glass Milk Bottles at the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Mock-up of a Fur Trading Post at Wisconsin Historical Museum
Mock-up of a Fur Trading Post at Wisconsin Historical Museum


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