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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:


Daughters of Chivalry

In Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Princesses of King Edward Longshanks, historian Kelcey Wilson-Lee tells the stories of the five daughters of Edward I of England and his first wife, Eleanor of Castile, who survived into adulthood: Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary, and Elizabeth.

I’ve got to say the book has a shaky start.  Wilson-Lee sets up a questionable and unnecessary straw woman in her introduction:  a “popular” vision of medieval princesses as powerless and passive that she describes as built on “an empire of fairy stories, Hollywood films, theme parks and cheaply produced ball gowns.”  Personally, I’m not sure anyone believes in the powerless princesses she describes–not the little girls who wear those ball gowns with attitude* and certainly not anyone who would chose to read a book titled Daughters of Chivalry.  Maybe that version of princesses existed once upon a time, but my own memory of fairy tales includes a fair number of princesses who used every ounce of power they held to control who they married–something only one of the real-life medieval princesses in Daughters  of Chivalry managed to control.

That quibble aside, Daughters of Chivalry is an excellent book.

Like even the most elite medieval women,  Wilson-Lee’s  princesses left a spotty trail in the historical record, most often appearing in official chronicles in the context of their relationship with one of the men in their lives.   She fleshes out the picture of their lives using a variety of sources—most notably the account records for the various royal households**—plus a certain amount of informed speculation.

Wilson-Lee uses her sources to good effect.  She creates portraits of five clearly defined individuals. Joanna, for instance, frequently defied her father and took full advantage of the opportunities accorded to a young, wealthy widow in medieval society. Mary, who entered the convent of Amesbury at the age of six, had a taste for luxury and a gambling habit at odds with her vow of poverty. She also places the sisters within the larger context of royal women in the late medieval period, exploring questions of education, marriages (political and otherwise), widowhood, property, travel, and the role of royal women as political intercessors. Like the women she describes, Wilson-Lee never loses sight of the fact that what power these women enjoyed was derived from their relationship to the king, but she fully explores the nature of that power and how they used it.


*A year or two ago, I saw a little girl stomping through the aisles of my local grocery store wearing hiking books with a princess gown and carrying a sword.  I’m pretty sure she didn’t share Wilson-Lee’s “popular” vision of princesses.

**The nature of her sources means there is a lot of description of real-life princess dresses.  This is not a complaint.  Just an observation.

The guts of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


Back in March, I celebrated Women’s History Month here in the Margins with a series of mini-interviews with people who are involved in creating and studying women’s history. A lot of you seemed to enjoy it.  (I know I did.) So I’m thinking about doing it again in 2020.  If there is someone you think would be a good fit, let me know.

Road Trip Through History: Effigy Mounds National Monument

Marching Bears Mounds

When My Own True Love and I reached the end of our Great River Road trip last October, we stopped just short of Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa.

As far as I was concerned it was both frustrating to walk away from it and something to look forward to. I’ve been interested in the mound-building cultures of the Americas ever since I was a nerdy little girl with dreams of being an archaeologist, and I’ve been dragging other people to mound-related sites ever since. Lucky for me, My Own True Love is both a good sport and endlessly curious.

We went to the Effigy Mounds site on a damp morning, which meant the site trails were treacherous for those of us who had not thought to pack hiking boots in addition to rain boots. (i.e. both of us.) That means we didn’t get a good look at the mounds themselves, but the site’s interpretive center was fabulous, as they so often are.* They told the story of the site in several different ways: within the larger context of mound-building cultures, within the context of Native American peoples in the area (including their interactions with Europeans), and as part of the story of the archaeology of the Upper Mississippi region. They also did a spectacular comparison of different types of tools and pottery horizontally across a vertical timeline that ran from the Paleolithic cultures (ca 10,000 BCE) through the Oneota people ( ca. 1300-1650 CE)

Here are the highlights:

  • The basics: We know of three major mound-building cultures that flourished at different times along the Mississippi River: the Hopewell culture, which flourished around 300 BCE, the Mississippian culture, centered on Cahokia, which flourished between 800 and 1400 CE, and the Effigy mound builders, who flourished between 700 and 1300 CE.**
  • Unlike the mounds produced by the Mississippian and Hopewell cultures, the effigy mound builders built animal-shaped mounds that are often described as birds and bears.***
  • Most of the effigy mounds builders lived in the Driftless Area: a geological concept that became a recurring theme of the trip, and possibly the most important thing we learned. (After all, geology is history on the grand scale, right?) Here’s the short version: In geology, the word “drift” means the rocks and sediment left behind by glaciers. Because most glaciers missed the triangular area made up of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois, they left no drift behind. They also didn’t press the area flat the way they did other portions of the American Midwest, creating a region that feels mighty comfortable for a transplanted Ozarker like myself.

In short, a stop worth making. Though I wish I’d had my boots.


*Can we get a round of applause here for the National Park Service?

**It is worth pointing out that both the mound-building cultures and the great cultures of Latin America are often described as “ancient cultures”. If you look at the dates, this is only true of the Hopewell culture. While these cultures were prehistoric in the sense of not having written histories, the Mississippian and effigy-mound cultures were both contemporary with the European medieval period. The Aztecs and the Incas were contemporaneous with Early Modern Europe. Rant over.

*** In the site’s introductory film, a National Park Service archaeologist carefully pointed out “As an archaeologist I cannot say this a a bear.” I honor the academic rigor behind his caution. But they sure look like bears to me. And exhibits in the center pointed out that bears, with their annual death and rebirth in the form of hibernation, had religious significance for later Native peoples of the region. I chose to believe in bears.


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