Tag Archives: Museums

How museum experiences can help you have tough conversations about family history

It doesn’t matter if you’re a historian, a genealogist, or an armchair history buff: when it comes to digging into your own family’s history, all researchers eventually slam headfirst into the Wall of Family Silence.

The Wall of Family Silence is that almost impenetrable barrier our own family members put up when we start asking questions about the experiences of our own people. And that wall–as formidable as any concreted, razor-wired, electrified barrier–will shut you down when you ask questions.

“I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh, there’s really nothing to tell. My life isn’t that interesting.”

“It’s not your business.”

“I don’t remember.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Years ago, a professor acquaintance and I were discussing the challenges of gathering family stories from immigrant family members.

“I just don’t know much about what life was like for my grandparents or great-grandparents,” I remember saying.

“You have to remember,” this acquaintance said, “that most of our immigrant ancestors didn’t give up everything they had because life was good and they were happy. Some of those memories are hard to talk about.”

The Wall of Family Silence.


Fast forward to 15 years later, when I am working in a local history museum and we’re developing an exhibit on World War I.

Our museum’s exhibit featured real helmets and uniforms visitors could try on. That steel helmet is even heavier than it looks.

I was visiting my maternal grandparents while this exhibit was going up, and I was telling them about how small the uniforms were, and how we learned many men from our county were rejected from service because they were malnourished.

Now, my grandparents weren’t old enough to experience the Great War. But they were around for the drawn-out aftermath and World War II, and they were experiencing it from present-day Croatia.

I was telling them about all of this to pass the time, to tell them about what I’m doing. But what I didn’t know is that telling them about my experience with the World War I exhibit was like leaning a ladder over the Wall of Family Silence.

My grandparents began to tell me stories about what it was like for them to grow up in a country in the middle of the mess. They told me about how it impacted their education, their opportunities, and the potential dangers. They told me about my paternal grandmother’s husband, who was tortured to death.

They told me a lot of things I had never heard before.

They never saw the exhibit. But my talking about the hard things our local people experienced during World War I was like giving my grandparents permission to talk about the hard things they experienced before and during World War II.

 


This summer, we installed an exhibit on the Home Front experience during World War II. I was telling my dad about it over dinner one evening.

“There was a POW camp in Ottawa,” I said. “A lot of those guys worked on farms and built good relationships with people in Franklin County.”

“My grandfather was a POW during World War I,” my dad said. “He and my uncle and a bunch of guys from our village were there with Tito. But Tito was just another guy back then, not the president of Yugoslavia.”

Another rope tossed over the Wall of Family Silence.


The ordinary and extraordinary experiences of our ancestors shaped the people who shaped us. All of our families have stories to tell. Some of those stories are hard to tell, and some of those memories are buried deep. Sometimes it’s hard to get family members to open up about their lives.

And that’s where a museum or historic site can be a magical place. Artifacts, photographs, exhibits, buildings–they stir memories. They acknowledge those personal stories are important. They create context.

They offer a safe conduit for a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle to say,

“I remember this.”

“When I was a little kid…”

“This happened to me, too.”

“My grandmother once told me about the time when…”

“Did you know that when your dad was a little boy, he…”

Any museum might have an artifact or exhibit that will create a spontaneous account of family history. There are also many Kansas museums that delve into tougher topics. Here are a few to consider:

Miners Hall Museum, Franklin, Kansas

This museum focuses on the history of coal mining, immigrant families, and the rights of laborers. I visited a few years ago and even though my own family never lived in southeast Kansas, I could see elements of my family in their stories.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

When you walk in the front doors, you’ll see a sign that says, “Where Hard Conversations Happen.” This site looks at both the history of school desegregation and the fight for equality. I keep trying to blog about my experiences there, but I realize I’m still processing my visit, which was emotional and inspiring.

Strawberry Hill Museum, Kansas City, Kansas

Housed in a former church-run orphanage, this museum explores the history of the orphanage (created to care for children orphaned during the 1918 flu epidemic) and the history of the immigrant communities in the Kansas City area.

POW Camp Concordia Museum, Concordia, Kansas

Once a POW camp for German prisoners captured during WWII, this camp is an opportunity to understand a different side of the war experience. It’s on my list of places to visit.

Pawnee Indian Museum, Republic County, Kansas

This museum offers the story of the lives of the Pawnee. It’s an opportunity to learn how the Pawnee lived and how settlers of European descent altered their futures. It is one of my favorite Kansas museums.

Share your story! What museum or historic site experiences inspired your family members to share personal history?

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Pawnee Indian Museum in Republic County, Kansas

The history and current stories of the native and emigrant tribes of Kansas have been on my mind these past few days. My Sisters in Crime chapter (that would be a group of writers, not a group of criminals) was lucky enough to host tribal law expert Traci McClennan-Sorrell as our speaker this past weekend. And today, a story of a Wisconsin bill that would loosen the protection afforded to earth mounds constructed by indigenous people more than a thousand years ago–protection put in place after nearly 80 percent of these mounds were destroyed by farming and development–showed up in my Twitter feed.

The more I study Kansas history, the more I realize how little I know and understand the stories of the people who were here long before the rectangle that is Kansas came to be. Which is why during our Republic County research trip last May, Jim and I made a point of allowing time to visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, which is just north of Belleville and a short jog from the Nebraska border.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas' first state historic site.

The Pawnee Indian Museum is Kansas’ first state historic site.

Here’s the first thing to know about the Pawnee Indian Museum: The land was not originally preserved because it tells the story of an amazing group of people who lived in Kansas hundreds of years ago. Landowners George and Elizabeth Johnson deeded it to the state of Kansas in 1899 (which accepted it in 1901, making it the first state historic site) because of the mistaken believe that explorer Zebulon Pike (of Pike’s Peak fame) stopped here in 1806 to raise the American flag west of the Mississippi River for the first time. And while he did stop in a Pawnee village to do so, it turns out that he was actually in the Pawnee village 40 MILES NORTH of the state historic site in the village the Pawnee moved TO after abandoning the one that was preserved.

However, this error in geography probably went a long way to protecting the Republic County site from being plowed into oblivion. The result is a truly wonderful site dedicated to sharing the story of the Pawnee in the late 1700s.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

A map of the earliest tribes to live in the area now called Kansas.

In this area by the Republican River, a band of Kitkehahki Pawnee built an entire village of earth lodges, which were surrounded by a fortification wall. After the village was abandoned, the earth lodges, which were built over carefully packed depressions, settled in place, complete with any remaining contents. Part of the fortification wall still exists. A handful of the depressions have been excavated. In 1967, the museum was built over the largest unexcavated depression in the shape of a Pawnee earth lodge, and archaeologists carefully unearthed the contents, exposing them but leaving them in place.

Pawnee Indian Village Scale model

A model of what the Pawnee lodge would have looked like when it was still in use.

As a result, when you enter the Pawnee Indian Museum, you don’t feel like you’ve entered a museum. You feel like you’ve entered a Pawnee earth lodge. Wooden posts that once held up the roof fell in place. Grains, shells, pottery, and other tools lay exactly where they were found. The storage pit–which is several feet deep (the Pawnee buried their supplies underground, hiding them from anyone poking around their village during the seasons they were elsewhere)–is visible. And then there is the faint scent of wood smoke, which will make you feel like the inhabitants could return at any moment.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

A view of the excavated area in the Pawnee Indian Museum.

The Pawnee did not live in the village all year long. During the hunting seasons, they followed herds of bison. The women also cultivated crops and stored them in the storage pits.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

Earth lodge storage pits were very deep.

A sacred bundle–a bundle of items important religiously and symbolically to a Pawnee family–is reverently displayed over the sacred area of the earth lodge. It is the only artifact that cannot be photographed.

Around the perimeter of the excavated area are several displays about the history of the Pawnee. Audio recordings of memories, journals, and the Pawnee language make the visit to this site even more meaningful.

The museum does not end in the building. The site includes numerous depressions, and a walking trail and signage help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

Signs along the walking trail help you interpret the depressions and remaining fortification walls.

After centuries on the Plains, the Pawnee’s population began to decline. As other tribes were pushed into the area that would become Kansas, the Pawnee were pushed out, and the tribal members who were not killed off by disease ultimately ended up in Oklahoma. By 1900, only about 600 Pawnee remained.

Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

According to one of the displays at the Pawnee Indian Museum, Pawnee populations declined rapidly in the 1800s.

If you visit the Pawnee Indian Museum, give yourself several hours to explore the museum, listen to the audio clips, and wander the grounds. It’s also a great museum for asking questions. Museum site manager Richard Gould has been researching the history of the Pawnee for years, and his insight made our visit even more meaningful.

This site does an amazing job of making the story of the Pawnee accessible to visitors regardless of what knowledge they may have of the history of native tribes. I highly recommend making the time to visit this museum.

Appanoose Museum in Franklin County

JIm and I first noticed this charming school building on one of our weekend wanderings not long after moving to Franklin County a couple of years ago. It was only recently, though, that we discovered the building is still in use as a museum and community center.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

Appanoose School continues to serve as a community center and museum.

The first thing we learned: this is not the original school building. The first school, designed by Ottawa’s own George P. Washburn, was built in 1919 and burned down in 1934. The current building is the second building, which was used as a high school until 1963, when the high school consolidated with Pomona. In its history, the building has also served as an elementary school and, at one point, the school taught kids from first through twelfth grade.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

The original Appanoose High School, which burned down in 1934.

Today, the building serves as a community gathering place, a small free lending library, and a storage space for the new elementary school. The gymnasium floor is maintained and often used for practice. But Jim and I were there to see the museum, which is open on Sunday afternoons from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This is truly a grassroots museum, a collection pulled together by a group of local history enthusiasts who wanted to preserve the story of Appanoose.

Appanoose was never a town, but rather a rural community. The museum shares the story of those who were brought together by Appanoose School, as well as the small surrounding communities, some of which only exist today in a church or cemetery name, like Richter and Greenwood. Displays also showcase rural life in the early 1900s.

A model of the Richter General Store.

A model of the Richter General Store.

Though not high-tech by any means, the displays are thoughtfully and cheerfully laid out, and despite having lived in Franklin County for more than two years now, I realized I still had a lot to learn about some of the smaller communities in the county’s history.

I was particularly charmed by a room filled with technological odds and ends, including a wonderful set of old typewriters and a telephone operator switchboard.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

A telephone switchboard that was once in use in Franklin County.

The museum also honors area veterans, and there are several displays about the local men and women from the Appanoose community who have served. There is also detailed display about James O. Baxter, a Pomona man who was shot down over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, but whose remains were not recovered until 1999.

Admission to the museum is free, though donations are appreciated. The volunteers are truly interested in local history and are happy to answer questions. The museum is worth a look, and it’s a lovely introduction to the history of the northwest corner of Franklin County.

And today I have the keys to a museum…

So I’ve been a little absent from my own blog because I had a major life-changing event. That’s because six weeks ago, this conversation happened:

Historical Society Director: Would you be interested in a job managing the museum?
Me: Would I get my own keys?

And two weeks later, I was unlocking the doors to my new home away from home, the Old Depot Museum, an 1888 former Santa Fe train depot that’s now dedicated to telling the story of Franklin County, Kansas.

Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas

The Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, Kansas.

I’m completely in love with the place. The artifacts. The history. The model trains that zip through an interpretation of 1951 Ottawa. Even the farm implements, even though I have no idea what most of them do. (Yet!)

My husband will be out of school soon, and we’ll be back on the road visiting other amazing places in Kansas and blogging about them. And should you find yourself passing through Franklin County, Kansas, visit the Old Depot Museum!

Sunday Snapshot: Old Castle Museum at Baker University

This weekend, I took advantage of the Museum Day Live events–when more than 1,400 museums across the U.S. offered free admission–to visit a museum that’s usually only open by appointment: the Old Castle Museum in Baldwin City, Kansas.

The Old Castle Meseum was originally known as The College Building. Founded in 1858, Baker University is the oldest continually running university in the state of Kansas.

The Old Castle Meseum was originally known as The College Building. Founded in 1858, Baker University is the oldest continously running university in the state of Kansas.

The Old Castle Museum was originally known as The College Building because it was the only college building in Kansas. Founded in 1858, Baker University, a Methodist university, is the oldest continuously running university in Kansas.

As soon as the Kansas territory opened for settlement, the Methodists, who were staunch Free Staters, put down roots in Douglas County. Their land was very close to the Santa Fe Trail and Palmyra, which was an important watering stop that would later include a post office. The post office building, which was in operation from 1857 to 1862, was moved to Baker’s campus and is next to the Old Castle Museum.

Saving its land for the long-term buildings that would require more funding, the Old Castle Museum building was technically offsite when it was built in 1858. According to Jen McCollough, the museum director and archivist, classes were held in the Old Castle while funds were raised for a new building. One of the donors was President Abraham Lincoln, and it is said that the gift to Baker University was the only gift he ever gave to an academic institution. The building he helped  establish, Parmenter Hall, is still in use today.

Baker University is the only university to receive a gift from Abraham Lincoln. His contribution to the university would help build Parmenter Hall, the first official university building on university land. Lincoln's donation is the second entry listed.

Baker University is the only university to receive a gift from Abraham Lincoln. His contribution to the university would help build Parmenter Hall, the first official university building on university land. Lincoln’s donation is the second entry listed.

Parmenter Hall, the first official university building, is still in use today.

Parmenter Hall, the first official university building, is still in use today.

The Methodist university would attract other national leaders in its history, including U.S. President William Taft and Senator Charles Curtis, a Kansan who would go on to become the only Native American to serve as a U.S. Vice President.

Famous signatures: President Taft and Senator Charles Curtis.

Famous signatures: President Taft and Senator Charles Curtis.

After the Civil War, the Methodist Church took up another cause: Prohibition. On display at the museum is a document bearing the signatures of all but three Kansas Methodist ministers in support of Prohibition. An interesting fact: As Baker University sold off tracts of land, the deeds included a clause that said if alcohol was ever sold on that land, ownership would revert to the university. Much of what is now downtown Baldwin City is part of that original land grant, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the Baker University president officially revoked that portion of the deed, allowing local businesses to sell alcohol.

This ream of papers includes the signatures of all but three Methodist ministers in Kansas...in support of Prohibition.

To show their support for Prohibition, the Methodists collected the signatures of all but three Methodist ministers in Kansas.

The College Building was never intended to be the university’s permanent home, and by the 1880s, it was sold and turned into a grist mill. The university repurchased the property for its fiftieth anniversary.  The building has undergone numerous changes during the years. The original third floor was constructed of sandstone, an unfortunate building material that disintegrated from the vibrations of the grist mill and hand to be pulled down. An extension was added to the west side of the building and was later removed. Then the university rebuilt the third floor.

Today, the Baker University Archives maintains the building as well as much of the local Methodist history for the state of Kansas. According to Jen McCollough, if churches or other local Methodist institutions close, their historic information goes to Baker University–an important thing to know if you’re researching your own Methodist ancestors. The building is an artifact in its own right. It reflects the history of both the university and Baldwin City, having served as an academic institution, a grist mill, a boys’ dormitory, a dining facility for post-WWII married student housing, and later a museum. Its exterior walls are covered with the names and initials of former students and grist mill workers.

Methodists indulge in graffiti, too. This sandstone patch on the south side of the building bears many names.

Methodists indulge in graffiti, too. This sandstone patch on the south side of the building bears many names.

But what about the name? There are two stories that suggest why the building became known as the Old Castle. One is that one of the original university leaders was a fan all things Scottish and referred to the building as the Old Castle. Another story suggests that because the building was the only stone building in the area in those early years of Kansas settlement, the building became known as the Castle.

Should you find yourself in Baldwin City, the university and the museum are worth a look. They will further enrich your appreciation for how religious institutions contributed to the state’s heritage.

Sunday Snapshot: Working in the Coal Mines of Southeast Kansas

Research on the next true crime book is taking me to Crawford County, Kansas, an area whose early history revolved around the coal mining industry. Realizing my husband and I knew next to nothing about coal mining in Kansas, we made a trip to the Miners Hall Museum in Franklin, Kansas to learn some basic mining history.

A nation in the midst of tremendous industrial growth was hungry for coal.

A nation in the midst of tremendous industrial growth was hungry for coal. This is the real deal, and it’s dirtier and heavier than I had imagined.

This little museum is packed with history, and staff members will help orient you through your visit. My first surprise was in discovering that the coal mining companies owned a substantial portion of land in this area, and they sometimes paid their employees in script to be spent at the company stores. These were company towns. I knew this was common in the Eastern U.S., but I had no idea that Kansas mines operated this way.

In addition, miners where obligated to provide their own equipment, from their picks to the helmets and carbide lamps on their heads.

Mining was incredibly labor intensive and dangerous work. The museum includes a binder several inches thick of the injuries and deaths documented in the local mines. In addition, Kansas mines were still employing children. In 1921, the women–mothers, wives, daughters, girlfriends–rallied a protest on the mining companies. More than 2,000 women interrupted work in the mines for three days. They were known as the Amazon Army.

A family memory posted at the Miners Hall Museum.

A family memory posted at the Miners Hall Museum.

Like the mines in Pennsylvania, many of the Southeast Kansas miners were from the Little Balkans. The area still has a rich Slavic and Italian heritage, which is also reflected in the museum and cultural events.

After the museum, we ventured southwest of Pittsburg to West Mineral, Kansas, the home of Big Brutus. It’s really hard to capture the size of this monster with a camera; but if you look closely at these photos, you’ll see tiny little people near Brutus, whose bucket could gather 150 tons of earth in a single scoop. After Brutus was retired in 1974, he became an attraction to help visitors understand the more modern mining process. This giant machine could be operated by just three people.

Side view of Big Brutus.

Side view of Big Brutus. A visitor is walking in front of the rear crawler.

Front view of Big Brutus. You can see a person standing just to the right, next to a crawler.

Front view of Big Brutus. You can see a person standing just to the right, next to a crawler.

Coal is no longer mined in Southwest Kansas, but evidence of past mining is everywhere. The ground is scared with mine shafts and surface and strip mining trenches that have morphed into lakes. Headstones in cemeteries honor those early immigrants who toiled away in pitch black mines in order to feed the heavy demands for fuel. And today, many of the residents of this part of Kansas are retired miners or the children and grandchildren of miners, whose way of life continues to be impacted by the area’s rich mining heritage.

Sunday Snapshot: The 1950s All-Electric House at the Johnson County Museum

Despite growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, my husband and I have discovered just how little we know about the history of the Kansas side of the Kansas City Metro area. Our quest: to visit as many of the museum and historic sites as we can. We recently toured the Johnson County Museum, which includes a completely restored model house built by the Kansas Power and Light company in 1954. The all-electric house was designed to showcase the wonders of modern suburban living. The Prairie Village house was showcased in newspapers and magazines like Better Homes & Gardens and was toured by 62,000 people in the year that it was open to the public.

Four different families lived in the house before it was donated to the Johnson County Museum. It’s both nostalgic in a Rob-and-Laura-Petrie sort of way while also featuring some technology that’s pretty spiffy even today.

The 1950s American Dream: a ranch house in the 'burbs.

The 1950s American Dream: a ranch house in the ‘burbs.

Unlike houses of previous generations, the kitchen of the future is by the front door. The lady of the house, who should be nothing if not efficient, can now watch her children play in the front yard, answer the doorbell, easily access the washer/dryer and mangle iron, and keep dinner on schedule!

That pink formica countertop is worth $80,000.

That recreated pink formica countertop is worth $80,000.

The house featured a machine that was both a washer and a dryer so that laundry could get done even on days when the weather wouldn’t allow for clothes to be line-dried. The problem: no spin cycle. It took a long time to wash and dry a single load. But that’s okay, because electricity is cheap in the 1950s!

It's a washer AND a dryer.

It’s a washer AND a dryer.

Heating up an iron is inefficient. Enter this monster machine, which is supposed to let you roll your clothes through to iron them against the heating element. It was far better at burning hands and catching fingers. Also, it takes a lot more space than an iron.

This is supposed to iron your clothes, but mostly, it mangles your hands.

This is supposed to iron your clothes, but mostly, it mangles your hands.

The bathroom of the future features a three-bulb light fixture. The white bulb emits regular light, the red bulb is supposed to sanitize the bathroom, and the amber light is a tanning light.

A bathroom light that lights, tans, and sanitizes. Sort of.

A bathroom light that lights, tans, and sanitizes. Sort of.

The modern living room includes a spiffy hiding place for your 19-inch black-and-white television: with the push of a button, the artwork slides away to reveal the screen. Remotes weren’t invented yet, though, so you still had to get up to change the channel.

The living room of the future: a television is hidden by a painting that will slide away with the touch of a button. Who needs a real fireplace when you can have an electric one?

The living room of the future: a television is hidden by a painting that will slide away with the touch of a button. Who needs a real fireplace when you can have an electric one?

Beyond the All-Electric House, the rest of the Johnson County Museum does a great job telling the story of the growth of Johnson County, an area that was primarily developed in the post-World War II years as a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. I find this fascinating because it’s one of the few places in Kansas that doesn’t feel, well, Kansasy, and now I understand why.  The museum also does a great job of explaining in an honest and factual way the fact that much of the county’s development through the mid-20th Century was seriously segregated, with land developments prohibiting sales to minorities and certain religious backgrounds. In addition, many historic structures and farms were leveled to make way for suburban living.

Most KCK kids lost friends when their friends' families moved to Johnson County.

Most KCK kids lost friends when their friends’ families moved to Johnson County.

This museum is also one of the most kid-friendly county museums I’ve seen. Every room includes play areas that reflect the interpretive educational goals of the room, and a large Kidscape is full of kid-sized places to explore.

The Johnson County Museum Kidscape area.

The Johnson County Museum Kidscape area.

If you’re in the Johnson County area, this museum is worth a stop. The main museum exhibits are free, with a $2 per person fee to tour the electric house.