How often do you get to see a Norwegian or Finnish farm? In America?
Or see nine newborn piglets, or taste horehound candy, or ride an 1880s tricycle…
On a recent trip to Milwaukee to visit a friend, we headed to Madison and I convinced my friend to stop at Old World Wisconsin, located between the two cities. The “world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life” (according to their website) is a sprawling tribute to the immigrants who settled the state. It’s a living history museum created in America’s bicentennial year 1976 from historic buildings and farms brought to the site from around the state. So although contrived, it offers a concentrated opportunity to compare European building practices and customs and to jump in and get one’s hands on history in a tangible way. If I had wanted to help with gardening or other chores, I could have. A variety of smaller sites make up the approximately 480 acre complex: the 1880s village, the German farms, the Polish farms, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Finns and the Yankees (settlers from New England), plus a random 1900 schoolhouse, and a town hall and a club hall. Two small buildings interpret African American settlement of Pleasant Ridge in the state. While these particular exhibits were essentially a book on the wall, the information and photos were interesting.
In the 1880s village we visited St. Peter’s Catholic Church, the first basilica in the state, the Thomas General Store where the storekeeper offered me horehound candy (all of the kids were spitting it out, and I ended up following them), the blacksmith shop, the Sisel shoe shop, and Four Mile house where the woman in the tavern part talked about temperance.
At the various farms, the interpreters explained where the house was brought from, who had built it, where in Europe they had immigrated from, reasons for immigration. Unfortunately they stopped at making connections to today and the deep relevance of the topic on today’s audiences fell short. It was a prime opportunity to draw connections between past and present and I wanted to see that. It’s easy to base a museum like this on nostalgia for a “simpler life” but, in my opinion, the only way places like this can hope to stay in business (aside from the largesse of the state government in this case) is to demonstrate why learning about this particular past is relevant to visitors today. Sure the hands-on activities are fun, but these places must answer the “so what?” question.
I enjoyed visiting the 1900 Raspberry School and sitting at a desk and hearing the interpreter talk about the life of the student. She challenged us to name the five states that didn’t exist yet in 1900. And readers who know of my past adventures with highwheel bicycles understand that I had to try riding an 1890s tricycle at the exhibition building Catch Wheel Fever. This simulated bicycle repair shop and wheelmen club center offers a look at the bicycle craze of the 1890s in Wisconsin. Unfortunately for me, the two young interpreters working there were not knowledgeable about the topic and though I enjoyed my bike ride, I felt frustrated with the exhibition.
Generally though the museum’s interpretive staff, dressed in period clothing, were knowledgeable and welcoming. I thoroughly enjoyed several hours here and hope that in the future the place will attempt to tackle deeper and controversial issues to provoke visitors to think about their world today.