Wisconsin’s Historic Preservation and Archaeology Month is observed each year in May to remind people of the important historic resources that give meaning and a sense of place to our communities. The objective of this annual celebration is to increase awareness on how critical it is to make sure these historic places and our shared heritage are preserved for future generations to appreciate.
Last fall, the Oshkosh Public Museum opened a new immersive, permanent exhibition that explores prehistoric and early in this region that spans 13,000 years. The key storyline and interpretive elements of People of the Waters focuses primarily on the study of the Ice Age, Native American cultures, and the impact of the Fur Trade.
When people think of the Ice Age, they visualize huge mammals. The North American continent was populated by a rich diversity of animals: megafauna like mammoth, giant beaver, giant ground sloth, saber tooth cats, and stag moose, to tiny animals like mice and shrews. People of the Waters details how massive sheets of ice, up to two miles high, gouged and transformed the landscape from prehistoric times to what we see today.
Using sediment core samples showing fossil pollen, charcoal, and dung fungus spores, University of Wisconsin scientists reconstructed an Ice Age ecosystem and estimated animal populations.1 An impressive array of artifacts, representing history from Paleoindians (at least 13,000 years ago) through the Fur Trade (European contact), are displayed in a dynamic forty-foot long glass wall. Artifacts left behind help archaeologists determine how people lived.
People of the Waters showcases a walk-over archaeological dig site that explains how archaeologists dig for the truth. A full-sized recreated Oneota longhouse from 1,000 years ago allows visitors to discover daily life in a Native village and how early people used the region’s diverse natural resources. The centerpiece of the Travel and Trade area is a replica of a birchbark canoe, a common vessel used during the fur trade-era, filled with a variety of trade goods.
The history of trade dates back thousands of years. People of the Waters explores the way two radically different cultures – Native and Western – came together and the effect, good and bad, on both. A proprietary Trap and Trade video game allows visitors an opportunity to experience first-hand how trading occurred. The trading game can be played in the gallery, online at oshkoshmuseum.org, or by downloading the free app from the iTunes Store.
The prehistoric cultures whose artifacts are on display in People of the Waters did not just disappear. Groups like the Oneota, who lived here between 1000 and 1670, gave rise to modern tribes. A Living Cultures area includes both historical and modern images of Native people in Wisconsin, representing the 11 tribal groups that currently hold lands in the state. Visitors can learn how Native cultures live on, and learn the Menominee names of some local places through an interactive map of Wisconsin.
People of the Waters will continue to inspire visitors for many years to come. The unique nature of this exhibition and the information presented is a huge draw to all K-12 students, in addition to educators and researchers. As a matter of fact, this innovative exhibition will appeal to anyone who is interested in discovering more about the region’s cultural history and understanding how past events shape our lives.
As the only museum in the east central region of Wisconsin to offer such a clear-cut educational experience, the Oshkosh Public Museum provides enriching field trip opportunities that align with and enhance classroom instruction. You can explore the wealth of artifacts that make up this incredible exhibition through the Virtual Exhibition at oshkoshmuseum.org. Also available online for download is a curriculum offering complete lesson plans at the Elementary School, Middle School, and High School levels.
The Oshkosh Public Museum is located at 1331 Algoma Blvd in Oshkosh. Regular hours are Tuesday – Saturday from 10 am-4:30 pm and Sunday from 1 pm-4:30 pm. General admission to the Museum is: Adults $8, Seniors (62+) $6, College Students $6, and Children (age 6-17) $4. Admission is free for Museum Members and children five and under. For more information, visit oshkoshmuseum.org or call 920.236.5799.
Photo courtesy of Phil Weston of Weston Imaging, Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
1 Devitt, Terry. “After Mastodons and Mammoths, a Transformed Landscape,” University of Wisconsin Madison news, November 19, 2009.