Road Trip Through History: Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover, Or a Museum By Its Website

It probably comes as no surprise to those of you who have been hanging out here in the Margins for a while that I am a fan of local history museums.

What a museum chooses to focus on can tell you how a community or a region defines itself.  Even a museum that seems at first glance to be an uncurated (or as autocorrect intriguingly suggests, uncharted) collection of stuff tells a story with the choices it makes.  A museum that chooses to display  a cigar stub, allegedly picked up by small boy after Ulysses S. Grant dropped it on the ground and saved by the boy’s descendants for several generations before they donated it to the local historical society (1), highlights General Grant’s presence in their town as an important moment in its history.  (Though I would argue that there are better ways to make the same point.)

Local history museums come in different sizes and shapes. Some scrap for every dollar while others are supported by community foundations or local deep pockets.  A few have modern museum facilities.  Some are located in buildings that give a nod to their community’s history:  the old train depot, an old factory, a nineteenth century hospital.  Many are the museum equivalent of a storefront church:  housed in an elderly building in a distressed downtown with a DIY feeling to the exhibits.

On one of our stops on the Great River Road I was reminded that creativity and passion are as important as modern museum technology when it comes to telling a community’s story.

We almost didn’t visit the River Museum in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Its website was not inspiring. We were pressed for time. And I had grim memories of a local history museum we visited earlier in the year that was full of random stuff and smelled of mold. Luckily My Own True Love was feeling more optimistic than I was, because it turns out that the La Crosse River Museum is an excellent example of what a small museum can do with no bells and whistles. I was particularly taken with the way they used artifacts to illustrate points rather than simply identifying them as objects. (For example, a pair of spiked shoes used by loggers when walking on floating logs was used as part of a discussion of floating logs downriver to the sawmills at La Crosse.)

The exhibits that caught my imagination the most demonstrated how the pre-European peoples of the region made things, using a combination of actual artifacts and replicas that showed the work in progress. Specifically:

  • The way different tools create different impressions in wet clay, included as part of an explanation of how ceramics are used to establish chronologies in the absence of written history
  • A discussion of how non-plastic materials, such as clam shells, were added to clay before it was worked. The addition of these materials allowed the creation of larger pots because they made the clay dry more uniformly and lessened the chance that the pot would crack when it was fired.(2)
  • A step-by-step demonstration of how pipestone is cut into a ceremonial pipe, illustrating a larger discussion of what European settlers and explorers mistakenly termed “peace pipes.” Smoking a pipe was a religious act, rather than a political one. The act placed those who shared a pipe into a space where only the truth could be spoken, which meant that sharing a pipe was a good way to seal a pact.
  • Taken together, several different exhibits made it clear just how sharp a stone knife can be.

Other exhibits dealt with the earliest European settlers in the region(3), the logging industry (4), and the shell button industry(5).

The final room of the museum was a small theater with an excellent film created by the Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Television that covered the history of the city of La Crosse, beginning in 1805 with the arrival of the earliest European settlers. The film summed up the region’s history as “steam boats, steam engines and steam-powered lumber mills.” It was a nice counterpoint to the rest of the museum, but I’m glad we also got to see mound builders, pottery makers, and ceremonial pipes/

(1) I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

(2) This is the sort of thing that always makes me wonder who figured it out and how. Was it the result of a glorious mistake? The discovery of a prehistoric version of Edison who patiently experimented her way through many mistakes? A gift from the gods?

(3) With a nod to the fact that their arrival was at great cost to existing inhabitants, something that doesn’t appear in many local history museums in my experience.

(4) A recurring theme on the Minnesota leg of the Great River Road last fall.

(5) Coming soon to a blog post near you.


If you’re interested in discussions about topics like history museums in general (as opposed to specific history museums), the joy of collective nouns, or writing on the road, you might enjoy my bi-weekly newsletter on writing, history, and writing about history.  (Rumor has it that I’ve done a lousy job of letting people know it exists.)  If that’s your bowl of buttered popcorn, you can sign up here:


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