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A collection of century-old photos gives history students unique firsthand experience

| Denise Olson

Part of the overall Blugold student experience is to gain insight and perspectives from other points of view. For a group of public history seminar students in 2016, that insight and perspective came from the past — a camera from the past, to be exact. 

Nineteenth century Eau Claire native Daniel Nelson purchased a camera in 1898 and captured images of the Eau Claire community at a time of great transition. The 415 glass plates in this collection were donated to the Chippewa Valley Museum by Daniel’s grandson, Ron Nelson, in 2014. The seminar students examined the images captured by Nelson and developed thematic panels that explore the history of the community through the lens of Daniel Nelson at the turn of the 20th century.

The exhibit, “Through Daniel’s Eyes,” was a collaborative project between 15 students in the spring 2016 Public History Seminar led by Dr. John Mann and the Chippewa Valley Museum. Two of those students, Sarah Beer and Makayla Elder, tell a bit about that experience, giving future students a unique peek into a unique project opportunity.

"What I love about the public history seminar is that the work students do isn’t just another assignment—it is a real world experience where they are held accountable to someone in addition to me.  I find that this brings out the best work from students.  Certainly this was true with the students enrolled last spring," Mann said.

Sarah Beer, senior public history major

The public history seminar was unlike any experience I’ve ever had in a classroom. While lectures and exams and papers are the norm, this seminar brought us real world experience and we were given the rare reward of being able to show our work to the public. Through this course we were treated like professionals and maybe even got a glimpse into our futures.

When I registered for HIST 486 all I knew about it was what the course catalog told me. “The seminar in public history is organized around completing a project in a particular field in the discipline. Students will conduct research and complete a written seminar paper that will serve as a part of a larger class product.” But as a public history major, it didn’t matter that I am daunted by group projects or that I wasn’t the best at research, the class is a requirement of my  degree. Walking into class that first day I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, but then we were given our assignment.

Our task was to create an exhibit of panels accompanied by original photographs, with each panel supporting a common theme found among the images. We ended up creating six panels that gave a brief history of each theme in the city of Eau Claire.

What I liked about working on this project was that, for the most part, we were left on our own. We always had the guidance and critique of our professor, but he wanted us to learn how to work together as a group, how to make executive decisions, and how to review each others work. It was in this sense that I felt more like a professional and less like a student.

This course was a lot of fun for me because it taught me to speak up, not be afraid of giving my input, and it taught me how to receive critiques and learn from them. It let me create something from scratch and see the finished product displayed in a museum. There aren’t very many classes that allow you to develop an idea, collaborate with your peers, and see that idea made into a tangible product for the public to see. HIST 486 far exceeded my expectations and was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had in college.

Makayla Elder, junior public history major

My experience taking this course only made me more passionate toward the museum career field. In this class we worked directly with the Chippewa Valley Museum and the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire archives to create an exhibit based on a man’s photographs of the Eau Claire area. His name was Daniel Bastian Nelson and he lived in Eau Claire on Menominee street in the early 1900’s.

The portion of the project that I worked on involved photos that had anything to do with the architectural environment of the Eau Claire area. There were many photos to choose from and we had to narrow our choices down to only five. After the photos were chosen, we did hours of research to figure out the stories behind these photographs.

I’m passionate about history because I want to tell the stories of the past. The amount of history that can be told from just one of these photos is remarkable. One photo for example involved the moving of a building with an awning that read Derouin Grocery. From this one photo it was discovered that the building had been moved more than once, and that the building had even experienced a fire.

This project gave me my first taste of museum field work. All the time and effort put into this completed project was well worth it. It was very fulfilling to see the completed exhibit hanging on the wall of the Chippewa Valley Museum, and later in McIntyre Library at UW-Eau Claire.

Photo caption: Public history capstone students Sarah Beer (left) and Makayla Elder, with the finished product of their work, "Through Daniel's Eyes" photo history exhibit, currently on display in McIntyre Library.