New exhibit illuminates the past

The History Museum at the Castle has brought an exhibit to Appleton unlike any you’ve ever seen, unless you walked down College Avenue in the ’50s and ’60s at night. “Neon: Darkness Electrified” is going on now and features the sign collection of local neon glass blower Jed Schleisner.

The exhibit will be shown completely in the dark, a first for The History Museum at the Castle. “The gallery will be illuminated by twinkling bulbs and the glow of neon,” says Nick Hoffman, museum curator.

The light from these towering signs will undoubtedly fill the gallery. The largest sign on display is a massive 12-by-12-foot Dairy Castle sign with 300 flashing lightbulbs. The other signs in Schleisner’s collection are just as impressive.

“There’s something cool about the really large signs. You gets next to them and they are just mammoth. That always caught a flare with me,” says Schleisner.

Many of the signs also have mechanical elements. Moving parts and coordinated lights that give the appearance of movement can be found in the more elaborate signs in Schleisner’s collection. His best piece, a 7-foot Chicken in the Ruff sign that once resided along historic U.S. Route 66, features lights that depict a cigar-smoking rooster breaking his golf club.

Along with being a glittering treat for the eyes, the exhibit aims to dazzle the brain. Visitors to the exhibit can learn about the rise and fall of neon in American advertising from its beginnings in the 1920s through the World War II slump and into the surge of the ’50s and ’60s and beyond.

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The exhibit also will explain the science behind neon signs. “We are really using neon and neon signs to teach people about the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) initiative,” says Hoffman. In conjunction with the STEAM initiative, Hoffman encourages schools to participate in the exhibit.

For Schleisner, the exhibit has given him the opportunity to finish his collection and have it on display. His goal is to finish his barn and hang the signs there once they have left the exhibit. “It’s really kind of cool. I’ve been out of the limelight in the neon world for so long. I have worked in these four walls by myself for the last 30 years, day in and day out servicing for companies. I never really get to do something for myself, and this is for myself,” says Schleisner.

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More than anything, Hoffman and Schleisner are interested in sparking a new interest in neon. “We hope that this exhibit draws awareness for the need to preserve the signs that remain in wisconsin. We hope that they gain a new appreciation for the art form,” says Hoffman.

Check out for special events and activity days in conjunction with the exhibit.

— By Jennifer Clausing

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