Newsmakers, November 13, 2014

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Wisconsin History Tour in La Crosse; Museum Diversity

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  • Wisconsin History Tour in La Crosse

    Wisconsin has seen 750 shipwrecks in its inland waters, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River in the time it has been a state. The sinking of the War Eagle in the Black River just north of the Mississippi River near what is now La Crosse’s Riverside Park is likely the most famous in the region’s history.

    The story of the War Eagle is just one of the moments in history being told as part of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Wisconsin History Tour. The tour will be in La Crosse through November 26 at the Weber Performing Arts Center in downtown La Crosse.

    The War Eagle sank on the night of May 15, 1870 after a lamp oil fire. It’s not known how many people were aboard at the time of the fire as the passenger list was lost in the blaze. Either five or seven people died in the fire. The War Eagle was waiting to take passengers from a midnight train from Milwaukee upriver to St. Paul, Minnesota according to Wisconsin Historical Society underwater archaeologist Tamara Thomsen. The shipwreck wasn’t explored until 60 years later in the early 1930’s when there was low water on the river.

    “Many people went and salvaged some of the items that were aboard, things like china and silverware,” she said. “They went into private collections, many of which are on display today at the Riverside Museum.” (in Riverside Park)

    Remnants of the War Eagle are still in the Black River in about 15 feet of water today. The site is protected today meaning it’s not legal to dive for artifacts from the shipwreck.

    The War Eagle is considered to be one of about 500 shipwrecks that are known about in the entire Mississippi River system. On the Mississippi south of La Crosse off Bad Axe Island an excursion ship known as the J.S. sank during a fire in June 25, 1910. One thousand people left La Crosse aboard the vessel headed for Lansing, Iowa. Two people died in that fire.

    Thomsen is trying to find funding that would allow researchers to have the War Eagle listed on the National Register of Historic Places, something that would take a complete archaeological survey, in large part because of its ties to the Civil War.

    “She was taking troops from Fort Snelling to the confluence of the Mississippi and to the Ohio River quite frequently,” Thomsen said. “She was struck by a stray bullet which hit her smokestack in 1862. Therefore, we can list her in service for the Civil War.”

    Shipwrecks are just one of the La Crosse area and Wisconsin exhibits and history-related programming that is part of the Wisconsin History Tour’s visit to La Crosse in November.

  • Museum Diversity

    There is an effort going on to improve diversity at museums across the country.

    Chris Taylor is the head of inclusion and community engagement for the Minnesota Historical Society, and is spearheading diversity initiatives for the organization.

    “The history and the evolution of museums in America were elite institutions, for the elite part of society,” he said. “A lot of the collections, which are the heart of museums, were collected for a sense of showing power and authority of American museums. We’re starting to see with different demographic shifts within the country that museums need to shift their cultures to be more representative of society.

    Taylor says about eight percent of the people that work in museums are considered to be from diverse populations. He says museums need to start cultivating the next generation of people who work in museums with an eye to diversity.

    He says for example, the Minnesota Historical Society has a gap in its Latino collection, but its more than just collections that museums acquire that can make a difference with diversity. He says they could look to things like an oral history project featuring different groups to fill in missing components.

    “A lot of historical collecting practices were not the most ethical,” Taylor said. “Nor were these things collected to tell a particular story, but rather with a certain exoticism in mind. Particularly with many Native American collections, there was this idea that Native American culture was vanishing, so put it in a museum and let’s preserve it that way.”

    He says in the last six months, the American Alliance of Museums, a regulatory board for many museums has put out some guidelines for diversity that other museums can follow; essentially saying that for museums diversity equals difference.

    Taylor recently spoke at UW-La Crosse.

Episode Credits

  • Maureen McCollum Host
  • John Davis Producer
  • Tamara Thomsen Guest
  • Chris Taylor Guest
  • John Gaddo Interviewer

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