Field Tripping By Kate Drabinski

Field Tripping: Public Museuming

Field Tripping: On the weird life-size dioramas in the Milwaukee Public Museum

One of the perks of being part of my profession is the "conference," in my case, the National Women's Studies Association annual meeting. These junkets—I mean scholarly gatherings—take place every November, and they bring a whole bunch of us together to yes, exchange new research, share best practices in teaching and learning, and all that, but they are also a chance to see old friends and get to know a new city, and they are just so much fun.

Last year's was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was awesome. I took the ladyfriend, and when I wasn't sharing thoughts about the role of contingent faculty in a post-tenure university or having brilliant insights into how to use digital assignments in the classroom, we were riding the bus around Old San Juan, eating mofongo, and getting our National Parks Passports stamped at El Morro while dodging giant lizards and posing for selfies against the brilliant blue backdrop of the ocean and sky. It was awesome.

How do you top that? Well, this year the meeting was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I know, I know, it doesn't sound as exciting to some folks, but the ladyfriend and I were pumped. When I hear "Milwaukee," I hear "labor union battleground," "postindustrial city," and "cheese curds," and I love all those things. We flew in early to make sure we'd have plenty of time to explore all this fair city had to offer, in between meetings and talks, of course. We started off easy with a walk down to Lake Michigan to see the wings on the art museum unfurl in the morning. It was magical, and I instantly was in love with the place.

We spent the day walking from one end of the city to another, stopping for a late breakfast at a hipster coffee shop with a stoner dude who generously shared his chocolate-covered espresso beans and city knowledge with us. We window-shopped our way back to the other side of the city on our way to the Harley-Davidson Museum, where I failed to comprehend a single interpretive sign until the section on women who ride motorcycles. I found myself idly wondering if they knew they were basically hosting a display of Dykes on Bikes, and then it was time to end the day with beer and cheese curds, both plain and deep fried. Hint: fried is better, brings out the chewy.

We hit up our next museum a couple of days later—the Milwaukee Public Museum. After we got over the sticker shock that accompanied the $17 apiece price tag to a "public" museum, we settled in to enjoy a truly weird place. Chartered in 1882, the museum is sort of a natural history museum, sort of an anthropology museum, or something. The main exhibit hall is all fossils and skeletons, and then, inexplicably, an array of life-size dioramas of European villages from an unspecified time period. We moved from house scene to house scene along a cobblestone path, like walking in a life-size Christmas Village. The French room was a kitchen, with a lady taking bread out of an oven and rows and rows and rows of baguettes. Austria was represented by a violin maker, Poland by pierogies, Czech by vánoka, Italy by a swarthy lady in fringe, and the list goes on and on and on. And on. I was overwhelmed by how many villages there used to be in Europe, and then I wondered why they were all here in this museum in Milwaukee.

I also wondered about the rest of the world. I guess it makes some sense that they'd have this history in a museum in a town settled by many European immigrants, but I totally imported that context. And there were a whole bunch of people in the area before any of those immigrants arrived on the shores of the lake, right? The museum had a diorama to the indigenous peoples of Milwaukee, but it was a fur-trading scene, settler Solomon Juneau buying furs from generic brown figures.

Juneau arrived in Milwaukee (then a part of the Illinois Territory) in 1816 as a clerk for a fur-trading company before getting his own post in 1818. He married his wife Josette and together, according to the interpretive signage at the museum, "over the next 32 years, they would build their lives, endear themselves to both native and settler, and lay the groundwork upon which Milwaukee—Wisconsin's largest city—would be built." This same signage called Juneau and his wife the city's "First Citizens."

I kept that in mind as we explored the rest of the museum, which the ladyfriend likened to a trip through Epcot. We worked our way across the globe, through the crowded public market of "India" with its elephant and monkey, across the plains of Africa with its tribal lion hunters, took a stop in Japan's gardens before a chilly stay in an igloo among the Inuit. No, really—they had a chilly wind blowing on you inside it. It was exhausting and our feet were tired, but we kept going because we are completists and when's the next time we're going to be inside a giant diorama museum? And also why is this museum doing this to us? We overheard a parent telling a child, "One more country and then we're out of here." I wanted to put myself up for adoption right then and there, but there was no stopping us—we had to see it all.

And then we let ourselves leave, and I thought about how few actual people had any subjectivity in there. Solomon Juneau had a personal history, a personality. He was a citizen, and "his" city was etched with his memory in street names, convention center rooms, and memorial sites. Everyone and everywhere else was essentially background, a lesson kids learn when they go here that, given what's on our news channels and in the mouths of our leaders, it's what remains. "We" are at the center, the rest just background.

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