Traveling museum exhibit will center on Ho-Chunk Nation history, culture

In the reflective quiet of the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center in Tomah, a group of University of Wisconsin–Madison anthropology students viewed a collection of intricately beaded bandolier bags representing Ho-Chunk Nation, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe artists.

The students also discussed aspects of Ho-Chunk Nation culture with the museum’s director, Josie Lee, during a visit to the museum on Sept. 11, and the importance of challenging stereotypes. The visit launched the beginning of a semester-long research project that will inform a traveling museum exhibit focusing on the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin. 

“It has been a longstanding goal of mine for the museum to create a traveling exhibit to increase awareness and knowledge surrounding the Ho-Chunk Nation and its true history and culture,” Lee said. “With the help of the village of Waunakee and the UW–Madison anthropology students, I look forward to this exhibit becoming a reality for our museum.” 

The project builds on the village of Waunakee’s work with UniverCity Alliance (UCA) to pursue social justice, racial equity, inclusion, and community civility within Waunakee. Several of the projects completed during the three-year partnership, initiated by Waunakee staff members and elected leaders, focused on cultural awareness and relationship building with the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin.  

Last fall, the Waunakee Public Library’s historical display curator became interested in hosting an exhibit about the Ho-Chunk Nation in the library’s “History Hall” local historical display area. 

“The exhibits in History Hall at our library are an attempt to tell the story of the village of Waunakee and the surrounding area,” Library Director Erick Plumb said. “Given the village’s partnership with UW–Madison and closer ties to the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, we felt now was the time to try to tell a part of the story of the first people that lived in our area.”  

During planning discussions with staff, the village decided that curating an exhibit that accurately portrayed the beliefs, views, and culture of the Ho-Chunk Nation required more in-depth work than staff were equipped to do on their own.  

“We knew an effective and respectful traveling exhibit would need to be created in partnership with the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and that we would need additional resources and support to launch the project,” Todd Schmidt, Waunake’s village administrator, said. 

Anthropology students view an exhibit of bandolier bags at the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center on Sept. 11.
Anthropology students view an exhibit of bandolier bags at the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center on Sept. 11. Photo credit: Abigail Becker

The project’s goal is to create an exhibit that can be displayed at the Waunakee Public Library before being loaned to other libraries in Dane County through the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center.

“It’s part of Waunakee’s responsibility to increase the knowledge in our community about the Ho-Chunk Nation’s culture, language, and traditions,” Schmidt said. “We hope to encourage a relationship building with the Ho-Chunk Nation beyond the boundaries of Waunakee through this traveling exhibit.”

Because of Waunakee’s previous work with UniverCity Alliance (UCA), Waunakee re-connected with the UniverCity Year (UCY) program to partner with the community-based learning class Anthropology 405: Introduction to Museum Studies in Anthropology. 

UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said it’s exciting to see Waunakee expand on the work started through the UCY partnership. 

“We’re honored to be a part of this ongoing relationship with Waunakee and the Ho-Chunk Nation,” Luter said. “Now, the results of that partnership will have the potential to reach many communities across Wisconsin through the traveling exhibit.” 

To financially support the project, Waunakee received a grant through Wisconsin Humanities.

“Projects rooted in the public humanities often start with strong partnerships that bring together different kinds of knowledge and lived experiences,” Director of Grants and Outreach Meghan Dudle said. “With all of these organizations working together, not only is more trust developed, but the stories, traditions, and history of the Ho-Chunk Nation become better recognized and respected, which ultimately strengthens our democracy.”

On-site learning

Through the anthropology course, the upper-level undergraduate students will provide a rough mock-up of the suggested exhibit layout, text, and recommended artifacts to enhance the exhibit. Additionally, the students will create policies and procedures for loaning out the exhibit once it’s completed. 

After the class provides final documents to Waunakee and the Ho-Chunk Nation, Waunakee will begin the process of designing and producing the materials by companies that specialize in library and museum displays and artifacts. 

Senior Curator of Anthropology Liz Leith, who is also the course instructor, said the course was originally designed as a skills-based class that would help students succeed in a future museum job opportunity. Because the nuances of collections management and curation are best understood through case studies and hands-on learning, Leith said incorporating a Community-Based Learning designation and project fits well with the purpose and structure of the class.

“My purpose for the course remains the same: to teach skills and theories relevant to the effective management of anthropological collections and to adequately prepare students to enter into the museum profession, should that be a future goal of theirs,” Leith said. “Adding a community partner to this class provides a unique opportunity for the students to experience how the skills and information we discuss in the class can be operationalized in a museum setting.” 

A group of students pose for the camera in the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center in Tomah.
Students in Anthropology 405: Introduction to Museum Studies in Anthropology will support the creation of a traveling museum exhibit focused on the Ho-Chunk Nation and its true history and culture. Photo credit: Abigail Becker

As an instructor, Leith said she can give lectures on designing exhibits and best practices for supplies and guidelines, but it’s a richer learning experience for students to create them and see their work supporting a community’s goals.

“This is a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea in its finest form,” Leith said. 

For the students, visiting the museum and discussing the project with Lee was a meaningful and critical experience for their research. The visit helped the students develop ideas that complement styles, themes, and content presentation and created a personal connection that’s difficult to replicate during a virtual meeting.

Getting out of the lecture hall and into conversation with a community partner was also a unique experience for some of the students. 

“This is the first time I’ve been off campus for a class. Everything I have had has pretty much been on campus, if not in a lecture hall, discussing (material) hypothetically,” Meghan Long, a junior majoring in anthropology, said. “I do love when things are more hands on.”

Elissa Erickson, a senior majoring in anthropology and history, added: “We’re learning skills and applying them as we’re learning them.”

This story was originally published in The Commons, a publication of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Read the full November edition, and view the web version or previous editions from the “News” tab on the Nelson Institute website.

–Abigail Becker