New Exhibition Opens at the Wisconsin Historical Museum

By Joe Kapler

In 2002 I wrote an article for the Wisconsin Magazine of History investigating contemporary icons and symbols of Wisconsin . Most of the concepts were popular in nature yet rooted in the history and culture of the state, and that was intriguing to me as a historian. How did things like beer, cheese, bowling, and tailgate parties become such an integral part of the popular conception of Wisconsin’s cultural landscape? At the beginning of the article, I borrowed from one of the University of Wisconsin band’s traditional songs, You’ve Said It All with its famous line, “When you say WIS-CON-SIN, you’ve said it all.” It’s a catchy tune, but the one and only lyric doesn’t really answer anything! I asked readers then, and I’m asking again, when you say Wisconsin, what do you say?

The pursuit of this basic question drives the interpretation of the Wisconsin Historical Museum (WHM). As curators, we are seeking to better define a Wisconsin sense of place -- a regional culture. The 2002 exhibit Icon Wisconsin explored Wisconsin culture at the popular, surface level. In the fall of 2003 we took another step by beginning an exhibition of Wisconsin folk culture. Person to Person: Communicating Identity Through Wisconsin Folk Objects is the culmination of those efforts and opens April 9, 2005. These exhibitions are not merely an ends. They are at the same time a means as we plan for the next generation of ‘permanent’ exhibitions and programming at WHM, whether it be a new facility or exhibition renovation. The information obtained, objects acquired, and contacts made today will be utilized in upcoming years.

Person to Person focuses on the material, the objects and artifacts, of Wisconsin’s folk culture. We utilize objects as interpretive starting points and from there discuss artists and makers, historical context, and folk culture concepts. This is where our partnership with several University of Wisconsin (UW) academic departments comes into play. Basically, WHM has the material (the collections), and UW faculty has the intellectual expertise. Most notably, CSUMC faculty members Dr. Jim Leary and Dr. Janet Gilmore served as project advisors and helped guide exhibition interpretation from the beginning to end. They reviewed and edited exhibition script and since 2002 provided credited internships to folk studies students at WHM.

The partnership with UW is not new. WHM has been collecting folk and ethnic related artifacts for over 100 years with a special emphasis in the 1950s coinciding with the development of the UW Scandinavian Studies program. Numerous folk exhibits have been mounted over the decades. It was only appropriate when the Wisconsin Folk Museum (WFM) in Mt. Horeb ceased operations in the mid-1990s that WHM purchase a large portion of the collections, and Person to Person features many of those 400 objects. Research files, object records, artist interviews, and extensive photo documentation accompanied the collections with major portions transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives. While working for WFM, Leary and Gilmore gathered much of those materials, and we were able to mine those resources for exhibition interpretation.

Norwegian Hardanger violin. Photo courtesy of WHS

Though Person to Person presents only a sampling of folk objects, considered en masse the objects illuminate themes in Wisconsin culture at the folk level. Objects are presented together around 20 themes. In many instances seemingly dissimilar items are grouped together demonstrating that folk themes exist across cultures and over time. With the help of Leary, Gilmore, and retired folklorist Dr. Willard Moore, we constructed an organizational model, began developing themes, and placed objects in appropriate themes. An object fit into a theme through several factors: its own story or provenance, its object type, or both.

Sometimes an object's provenance or story allows for a new and different interpretation. Folk exhibits and publications have extensively covered the traditional Norwegian Hardanger fiddle. We have two hardangers in the WHM collection but are only exhibiting one because of its special story. In the grouping entitled “Embellishing Existing Artifacts” the text for the hardanger explains its unique origins:

"An uncle from Barron County, Wisconsin gave Adolph Austin a regular violin in 1893. Wishing to improve the violin, Austin called on Knute Hellund of Chippewa Falls to turn it into a Norwegian Hardanger violin. Hellund applied the border designs (known as kol rosing), inlaid the mother-of-pearl, added a second set of strings, and carved the dragon head. These changes turned the original piece into a fine example of a traditional Norwegian folk instrument."

In other situations we did not know any of an object’s provenance so we focused on its type and what that communicated. The grouping covering courtship, marriage, and family rituals features two hand carved and decorated Norwegian mangleboards whose records included no information except for the donor. Therefore, we investigated the concept and purpose of mangleboards and were able to tell this story:

Norwegian mangleboard used in courtship. Photo courtesy of WHS

"The horse symbolized strength and virility in pre-Christian Scandinavia. Its appearance on these more recent objects may not have the same symbolic meaning, but the horse has survived as a decorative motif in Norwegian folk culture. The variety in chip-carving techniques demonstrates the craftsman’s woodworking skill, an important attribute for nineteenth-century rural Norwegian men. The more elaborate the mangletraer, the more skill possessed by the maker. This was important as the boards often served as betrothal gifts, a marriage proposal by proxy, from a man to a woman. The maker demonstrated his abilities and creativity by making the piece as elaborate as he desired. If a woman accepted a man’s mangletraer, she accepted his marriage proposal."

Some of the more interesting objects have both a great provenance and context. The “Nostalgic Memories” grouping includes a pair of hand carved bears dancing and playing an instrument along with a more recent whirligig (mechanical sculpture) depicting dancing bears and their trainer. These works had origins in the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Serbia). We wondered why bears seemed to be a prevalent design element in folk art from that region. The object records detailed the provenance of each piece, and through the intrepid research efforts of a project intern, we learned more about the presence of bears.

Carved dancing bears. Photo courtesy of WHS

"Matt Gavric likely carved this group of bears in Serbia before his family immigrated to America and settled in Milwaukee. Gavric stayed behind but his family brought over several of his animal carvings. A third piece of the original set, depicting a Roma (Gypsy) man, was retained by the Gavric family and is the key to understanding the carvings. Bears are significant in Roma culture. The Roma traditionally worked as musicians and performers, and some trained bears to entertain. It was not uncommon in Europe to see a Roma man lead a dancing bear through the streets and collect coins from amused audiences. Gavric may have seen bear trainers in Serbia and represented those scenes in his carvings."

These are just a few of the many stories exploring themes of Wisconsin folk culture. Person to Person: Communicating Identity Through Wisconsin Folk Objects runs from April 9, 2005 through June 24, 2006 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Capitol Square in Madison. Come view the exhibition as it may give you something more to ponder the next time you say Wisconsin.

Joe Kapler is the Curator of Domestic Life at the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

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