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UW-Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley Museum Continue to Collaborate on New Projects

RELEASED: April 21, 2006

EAU CLAIRE — On April 29, approximately 40 K-12 social science teachers from around Wisconsin will meet in Eau Claire to begin a three-year program titled "Making Americans, Making America: Community, Citizenship and the Constitution." Funded by a Teaching American History Grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the program is the product of collaboration between the UW-Eau Claire history department, the UW-Eau Claire Center for History, Teaching and Learning, a consortium of eight of Wisconsin's 12 Cooperative Educational Service Agencies and the Chippewa Valley Museum. It provides these teachers with 15 hours of graduate credit through three summer institutes and workshops during the academic year.

According to Oscar Chamberlain, director of the Making Americans program, as these teachers study the stories of different ethnic groups in Wisconsin and the role that American citizenship and American constitutional history played in their lives, they will benefit from an extraordinary partnership: The long-standing relationship between UW-Eau Claire historians and the Chippewa Valley Museum.

In addition to the coursework the educators will explore with their professors, they will have a practicum at the Chippewa Valley Museum to learn how to interpret historical records and related materials and how to identify and interpret similar materials in their own locales.

"One of the long-term goals of the MAMA grant is to help people learn how to interpret the wonderful historical resources available to them and understand them in a larger historical context," Chamberlain said. "If we hadn't already had such an active, collaborative relationship with the Chippewa Valley Museum, we couldn't have just started a program like this. The relationship that was already in place made it possible, and students around Wisconsin will benefit from what their teachers learn from this collaboration."

Susan McLeod, Chippewa Valley Museum director, said that many small museums or historical societies tend to focus primarily on the collection of local artifacts and local history, but in the late 1980s the Chippewa Valley Museum staff began to try to deepen the content of their exhibits and get more background.

"We were trying to make the exhibits more interpretive by looking at broader meanings and larger themes in history," McLeod said.

"And among our historians at the university, many have interests in regional history, along with the broader knowledge of historical concepts," added Chamberlain.

"We began to ask them for help," McLeod said.

The resulting collaboration has led to some award-winning exhibits. The first such exhibit, "Paths of the People: The Ojibwe in the Chippewa Valley," which opened in 1991 and is still on display, came about, McLeod said, because the museum staff started discussing how they could use the headline interests of the day — at that time the conflict over Indian treaty and fishing rights — to generate more interest in a history not generally understood by the public.

"Some people thought of Indian history as being over; no more story to be told," said McLeod, "so our question, our strategy, became, how can we help people see their connections to the past? We wanted to show history as a continuum and make people understand that the past has come through to us in many ways and continues to shape and impact our lives."

The CVM contacted Rick St. Germaine, a historian and UW-Eau Claire professor who also is a former tribal chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe, and asked if he would like to be involved in developing the exhibit. He accepted and remains a great supporter of the museum today. Former UW-Eau Claire provost and vice chancellor emeritus Ron Satz, a well known scholar of Native American history who passed away in March, was another consultant for that exhibit.

Another more recent exhibit, "Farm Life: A Century of Change for Farm Families and Their Neighbors," a 5,000 square-foot exhibit that opened in December 2004, also was a collaborative effort between the museum, several UW-Eau Claire historians — Jim Oberly, Robert Gough and Jane Pederson — and other national scholars, with major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. NEH review panelists called the exhibit "a welcome departure from traditional farm exhibits that focus on the technology of farming divorced from its social and cultural context" and were also impressed by the museum's "seamless integration of scholarship and the stories of real people."

The NEH also praised the "innovative ways" the museum has devised for presenting the components of the exhibit, which includes everything from scrapbooks to computer stations. And this, according to Chamberlain and McLeod, has been one of the ways that the museum has been able to help the UW-Eau Claire historians in turn.

"The museum has been using all kinds of new techniques for communicating history to people in ways that scholarly publications can't," said Chamberlain.

While academic historians tend to think in terms of publications — papers, articles and books — Chamberlain said that being involved with a museum helps them learn to think in terms of exhibits and more visual ways of communicating history to the general public, giving their work a chance to reach a wider audience.

"The experience of our collaboration with the Chippewa Valley Museum was one factor in our establishing a public history program in the history department," Chamberlain said. "That program, in turn, has encouraged increased collaboration."

According to McLeod, the various summer institutes and special projects for teachers that are held at the museum also have put the staff in closer contact with middle school and high school teachers, and the result has been a ripple effect, influencing even more students as the teachers deepen their understanding of both local and national history.

McLeod said that about 26,000 people visited the museum last year, and of those about 6,200 were schoolchildren who came as part of a class trip. The museum offers resources to enhance these experiences. Educators who brought their students to see the "My Town, Your Town" exhibit, for example, were able to take advantage of an exhibit guide that provides teachers with information and activities to prepare students for the field trip. The guide allows educators to better understand the history of the 1920s as it pertains to the workings of a local community set in that era. The guide also helps educators explore with their students the exhibit's community-related themes of "Learning to Be a Citizen," "Building a City," "Making a Living" and "Making a Difference." UW-Eau Claire historian Kate Lang contributed to the development of the interpretation and student experience.

In addition, UW-Eau Claire undergraduate and graduate students regularly use the museum as a resource for their individual research projects, exposing them on a regular basis to the idea of visual communication and the possibilities for public history. A variety of internship positions are also available to UW-Eau Claire students.

"The connection between the history department and the Chippewa Valley Museum has allowed me to engage with my community by doing what I love — thinking about history," said Lang, who has most recently been involved in helping plan "Making a House an American Home," a project that would consider new interpretations and uses of the historic Schlegelmilch House in downtown Eau Claire, which is owned by the museum.

"It is a wonderful partnership that provides terrific opportunities for our students and enriches the community as well," said Lang.

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