The Wisconsin Historical Society will offer La Crosse community members a peek Wednesday at the design concepts for the new State History Museum museum, along with a glimpse at two rare artifacts.
Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, will host a “Share Your Voice” event from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, preceded by an artifact viewing, at the La Crosse Public Library Main Branch.
Attendees are invited to share their feedback on plans for a new $120 million, 100,000-square-foot museum in Madison’s Capitol Square.
The facility will take the place of the current museum, located in the former Wolff Kubly Hardware store, and will feature twice the exhibition space, meeting areas, distance learning technology and opportunities to house traveling exhibits.
“This project will fundamentally reshape how people collectively understand and learn about Wisconsin history,” Overland says. “It will help ensure that future generations have the platform they deserve to celebrate and reflect upon the shared experiences of the generations of people that came before them.
“The new facility has the ability to reinvigorate how history is taught in the new museum and across the state with the society’s partner organizations,” Overland said. “As a vibrant civic center, the museum will start a dialogue with visitors through its hands-on, dynamic exhibits and serve as a vital forum for discussion and perspective on important issues.”
Planning for the proposed museum has been in the works for the past two decades, and Wednesday’s event will be one of more than 60 listening sessions across the state with residents and students, as well as 14 American Indian nation engagement sessions, for individuals to offer suggestions on how the state museum can best serve their community and their ideas of “What makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin.”
“As we hold more listening workshops across the state, it is important for us to be inclusive and understand what types of stories and programs our guests would like in the new history museum,” Overland said. “We also want to understand how we can better serve our audiences in their towns and cities because we feel that everyone should feel welcomed in this museum, whether they visit in person or participate digitally.”
The exhibits in the current museum are outdated and the building is undersized and in poor condition, Overland says.
After enumeration in the 2019-2021 capital budget, final development plans and design authorization will need approval from the State Building Commission. The former Wolff Kubly Hardware store will be demolished to accommodate the new museum, with design and construction expected to take four years to complete.
“The new state history museum project is about more than bricks and mortar and will connect the stories of Wisconsinites from all 72 counties,” Overland said. “The input we receive at these public workshops will help shape future exhibits and storylines and this is a rare opportunity for the public to provide their vision of how the new museum can represent Wisconsin and their history to create relevant stories that have local significance and national impact.”
In advance of the workshop, from 5 to 6 p.m., attendees are invited to view a pair of items from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s American history collection.
Displayed will be 1849 sketches of the Oregon Trail by James Wilkins and a circa 1940 sweater worn by Auschwitz prisoner Tadeusz “Ted” Kowalczyk, who became a resident of Madison in 1949 and was a professor of veterinary science at the University.
Dozens of Holocaust survivors settled in Wisconsin, Overland says, and the button-front wool sweater was worn by Kowalczyk for three years after being arrested in Poland by German soldiers and tortured at Petrikau prison before being transferred to Auschwitz. The cardigan is believed to have originally belonged to a Hungarian prisoner. Prisoners usually surrendered their clothing when they arrived, and Kowalczyk was given the sweater, marked with a red X to denote his prisoner status, to wear over his uniform.
Kowalczyk survived pneumonia, malnutrition, typhus and beatings at the hands of guards before being sent to the Sachsenhausen camp in February 1945. When Soviet troops began advancing in April, prisoners were sent out in groups accompanied by guards. After walking for 12 days, Kowalczyk was saved by American troops on May 3. The veterinarian died in 1970 during heart surgery.
Wilkins’ sketches depict the landscapes and sights along his 151-day journey from Weston, Missouri, to the California gold fields, “with the sole purpose of creating a huge panoramic canvas from them, hoping to capitalize on the public’s love of this form of entertainment,” Overland says. The sketches are believed to be the only ones remaining and were purchased by a St. Louis man, whose son later gave them to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Both of these objects are part of the society’s world-renowned American history collection,” Overland said. “Although many scholars understand the breadth of the collection, the society is seeking to democratize the collections, introducing them to even larger numbers of Wisconsin residents. As storytellers, the Society’s national collections help contextualize state history.”
For more information on the Wisconsin Historical Society visit wisconsinhistory.org.