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Peeking Behind the Glass

Fox Cities museums keep history & heritage alive.

With art museums, historic homes, universities and other institutions offering thousands of displays annually, the Fox Cities area showcases several exhibitions for anyone who wants to see history and heritage in two and three dimensions.

“I’d hazard a guess that many people don’t realize how many museums we actually have,” says Lynn Peters, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Out-of-town visitors often are surprised by the high quality of the museum experience here.”

“Some are small and quirky, like Kimberly’s Bridge Tower Museum, while others are internationally known,” says Peters. “Soon we’ll have the Little Chute Windmill.”

Peeking behind glass cases and pulling aside velvet curtains, we examine the collections, people and challenges of five museums in the Fox Cities.

The Trout Museum of Art

In July 2010, the Appleton Art Center was renamed The Trout Museum of Art after receiving an art collection of more than 150 works of art that represents 400 years of history from Dr. Monroe E. and Sandra Lemke Trout.

Executive Director Timothy Riley says its board of directors had been working with the Trouts for more than two years. “With more than 150 works of art from Europe, America, Asia and Africa, it’s a wonderfully diverse collection that, in part, was inspired by their travels,” Riley says.

According to Riley, the couple has been collecting the works of art for nearly 50 years and amassed “a very substantial collection” that includes pieces by Spanish painter Salvador Dali, American painter and engraver James Abbott McNeill Whistler, French painter Edouard Leon Cortes and Russian-French artist Marc Chagall.

The building housing the museum, constructed in 1922, had to undergo renovation and redesign to properly safeguard and display the Trout collection that came with a $1-million dollar endowment to preserve, protect and promote it. “We had to make significant upgrades to climate control, security and design—not only to exhibit the collection, but also to store it,” Riley explains.

Riley also notes the terrific outpouring of support from the local community when residents realized that a collection of this caliber would make its home in the Fox Cities.

“Going forward, we will build exhibitions surrounding some of the works from this collection,” Riley says. “It can be a catalyst and nucleus for us to build partnerships and to borrow works from other museums. It’s a very wonderful, reciprocal relationship between institutions and a terrific opportunity to get these works of art out to other museums and to the public.”

The History Museum at the Castle

Located on College Avenue in Appleton, The History Museum at the Castle is best known for showcasing the life and work of Harry Houdini, currently in its A.K.A. Houdini exhibit, but it is much more than a place to stare into glass cases.

With a team of nearly 150 volunteers who work on artifact processing, maintaining the archive database and other tasks, The History Museum at the Castle supports its mission of preserving and sharing the history of the Fox Cities.

The museum is also guided by a board of directors and served by a staff of six full-time and five part-time employees.

The History Museum’s extensive library and archival collections focus on the social, economic, agricultural and industrial history of Outagamie County and the Lower Fox River Valley. They contain approximately 800 cubic feet of personal and family manuscript collections and hundreds of records from businesses, clubs and government offices.

“We respond to about 800 research questions a year, from authors and other writers to film makers and television show producers,” Bergen says.

An estimated 20,000 artifacts and 35,000 photographic images are catalogued along with 350 maps and digital collections, published histories and subject-based (vertical) collections of research papers and notes. “We like to say our artifacts and other objects are antisocial, that they like to be left alone in the dark,” says Bergen. “Every time you bring one out, you damage it a bit. We try to have them on view in a very safe manner so we can preserve them.”

According to Executive Directory Terry Bergen, the exhibits are planned five years out. Displays are designed to utilize their extensive collection of artifacts and photographs to help tell the story.

New exhibits are added about once a year and presented for one to two years. The History Museum is currently presenting a temporary exhibit, Picturing Main Street: Postcards From Our Past, a Sports & Spirit section and a new permanent installation entitled, Why McCarthy, putting the life of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was born and raised in the Appleton area, on display.

Bergstrom-Mahler Museum

Anyone involved in the daily maintenance of a museum knows the care of exhibits and collections demand hard work, expertise and attention to detail.

The Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah is home to the world’s most respected collection of glass paperweights. The museum trains its staff members to ensure proper cleaning, transportation and storage of these objects. “Some of our historical pieces—the German drinking vessels, for example—are very fragile,” says Executive Director Jan Mirenda-Smith. “Some are composite with repairs or metal components that require special handling.” In certain cases, special nitrile gloves are worn, shelves and carts are padded and pieces are often mounted with museum wax to better secure them.

This museum’s security relies on staff monitoring the locked cases and the physical presence of employees, as well as the technology of motion detectors and security cameras.

Since each year about 20,000 individuals view the collection of more than 3,000 glass pieces, visitor safety and comfort are other components of the security system.

The museum operates with five full-time and five part-time employees, assisted by a 16-member board of directors and more than one hundred volunteers. It has been accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM) for 21 years, is primarily self-supporting through donations and more than 50 fundraisers a year.

“We live a kind of a schizophrenic life,” Mirenda-Smith says with a smile. “The glass collection has been of worldwide interest and developed to be a valuable research collection.”

The board, employees and voluteers work hard to generate interest within the community and present exhibits that are relative. To accomplish that, feedback is gathered though surveys and other interactions with the public. “It’s the idea—‘If you build it, they will come,’” Mirenda-Smith adds.

Weis Earth Science Museum

While exhibits change frequently, our curiosity about yesterday and tomorrow are solid as a rock.

In winter 2009, the Weis Earth Science Museum, located on Menasha’s UWFox Campus, acquired a prehistoric gift from Dr. Bruce Danz, a family doctor from Kaukauna. His donation consisted of a 4-foot Edmontosaurus femur bone, a Tyrannosaurus rex replica skull, a 22-egg oviraptor nest and a completely articulated Psittacosaurus skeleton. At the time of the acquisition, Weis Earth Science Director Joanne Kluessendorf said, “These fossils are probably some of the best examples anywhere.”

As the official mineralogical museum of Wisconsin, it is also a hands-on wonderland where visitors can create an earthquake, shoot off a quarry blast, touch a dinosaur bone and view the extensive collection of minerals and fossils.

Hearthstone Historic Museum House

Aside from securing donations and creating exhibits, operating a museum presents additional challenges such as daily maintenance and financial support.

Executive Director Tricia Adams and part-time volunteer coordinator Caleb Rocke are responsible for keeping Appleton’s Hearthstone Historic Museum House, the first house in the world supplied with electricity, up and running. “Throughout the house, we try to maintain its historic integrity,” Adams says. “But its maintenance has been a real big struggle for us.”

Volunteers and board members conduct tours and help with special projects around the building, but keeping the door open is up to the staff of two. “If I’m downstairs tightening a doorknob, I’m not at my desk looking for grants,” says Adams.

Financial support is important since the museum is not part of the Historic Society or funded by the city, as many residents and visitors may believe. “As a private, non-profit entity, we rely only on admissions and donations,” Adams explains.

Thanks to those who are passionate about preserving history, Fox Citians are fortunate to have several museums in their backyard.

While we looked behind the scenes of only a handful of museums, many other institutions in the Fox Cities are open to you and your family’s explorations. For a complete list, click here to view current exhibits.

—By Lynn Kuhns & Alison Fiebig

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Arts & Culture, History

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