Op-Ed: Support Old World Wisconsin
(To be placed in the Wisconsin State Journal, or another statewide publication)
In attempting to address this opinion piece, I realized that the audience my appeal is targeting is so broad, so varied, that my “Dear…” statement would go on for pages. Old World Wisconsin, the world’s largest museum devoted to preserving and showcasing the history of rural life, is truly something the state of Wisconsin should be proud of. This piece goes out to not only lovers of history, but also lovers of Wisconsin, immigrant culture, architecture, farming, agriculture, families, teachers, students and travelers, with the simple goal of raising awareness, attendance and donations for the state-funded site.
The museum, which houses over 60 structures from the many cultural backgrounds that together, make up the people of Wisconsin, is not only a place for history to be displayed and explored but an exquisite demonstration of preservation. The structures at Old World Wisconsin (OWW), which range from a Norwegian one-room schoolhouse to an African-American church, are original structures, just not original to Old World Wisconsin. In what some refer to as “salvage architecture”, historic structures from around the state, no longer functional for their original and intended purposes, were moved to Eagle, Wisconsin (home of Old World) and reconstructed to form the open air museum we know today. These buildings, though not original to the area, provide visitors with a one of a kind opportunity to see folkloric structures that were not created to be on display but to live everyday life in.
While the tourism, education and simple fun Old World Wisconsin brings to the area is obvious to many, it is the perhaps less obvious benefits and its unique history that compel me to advocate on its behalf. While The Wisconsin Historical Society is well known for a substantial collection and a renowned Library-Archives, Old World Wisconsin is a product of the expanding belief that Public History should be an equally important duty of WHS and other society’s alike. As John D. Krugler, author of “Creating Old World Wisconsin: The Struggle to Build an Outdoor History Museum of Ethnic Architecture” reminds us, Old World Wisconsin had no major donors or benefactors, no Rockefeller family like Colonial Williamsburg. While this created obvious financial setbacks, it allowed for more freedom when creating the exhibits, for no one donor’s opinion was to be held any higher than another’s.
Though museums, and all information agencies, are believed to be an end all be all of historical fact by the general public that is not always the case. For example, donors can insist that a museum exhibit have a certain “spin” that aligns with their religious or cultural beliefs; it is for this reason that the state funding of Old World Wisconsin is such a blessing. With no benefactors to please, critical thinking and questioning are welcome at OWW, and the ethnic groups included were chosen due to their historical importance as opposed to the financial influence of a donor. Information agencies, museums included, need to accept the responsibility the public has placed upon them; the responsibility of portraying unbiased history, something I believe Old World Wisconsin strives to do.
The largest of the 11 off-site properties of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Old World Wisconsin has seen its’ fair share of challenges in recent times. On June 21st of 2010, a tornado ravaged the landscape of OWW and caused (luckily) minimal damages to historic buildings. In addition, OWW has not been immune to the drop in attendance many institutions have seen during hard economic times. Though the museum has continued to draw in many guests, hard times bring to light what a devastating loss the state of Wisconsin would face if the Wisconsin Historical Society were not able to maintain the site. Please join me in supporting such unique organization that not only preserves historic buildings otherwise deemed unusable, but that was created by the renowned Wisconsin Historical Society as a place for accurate portrayals of many ethnicities, something so integral to the history of Wisconsin.