Sesquicentennial may be a tough word to pronounce, but the History Museum at the Castle is making it an easy event to celebrate throughout 2022.
The Appleton institution celebrates 150 years on February 22, originally being founded as the Outagamie County Pioneer Association in 1872. Now holding more than 20,000 three-dimensional artifacts, 35,000 photographs and a number of rotating exhibits, the museum is a far cry from its humble beginning.
“For years it was a volunteer organization… it was formed pretty early for a historical society in a community that had only been around for 30 years or so,” Matt Carpenter, Executive Director, says. “There were a lot of very passionate people who believed there is value in putting our collective past into perspective and context.”
“There’s a weight, or a responsibility, to do justice to that time and to be the caretaker for the next generation—for the next 50 years, the next 100 years, the next 150 years—so that it’s here to stay,” Dustin Mack, Chief Curator, adds.
The museum transitioned from volunteers to a full-time staff and board of directors, and thus slowly but surely became what we know it as today: a place to celebrate the rich history of the Fox Cities.
Celebrating locally relevant history
The iconic “castle” was built in 1923 by the local Masonic Blue Lodge and was originally a Masonic temple that held numerous community events. The history museum moved to the building in the mid-1980s as a focal point for the community and a place for visitors to experience tangible exhibits celebrating the area’s history.
Perhaps most notable was “Tools of Change,” a cutting-edge exhibit at the time, which showcased large machinery and equipment from the paper and farm industries. It discussed how such innovation changed the lives of the people that used them and how it led to this area becoming the Paper Valley.
“We look at it now as outdated but at the time it was a very contemporary exhibit,” Mack says. “They were doing history that was new and interesting and relevant. They were kind of pushing the boundaries of what was expected out of a museum.
“As time passed, how we think about history and how people approached history changed. It became less focused on the machines and businesses and more focused on people and their individual history, social history.”
“As a museum, that shift internally goes from preserving these collections that are so important to putting the collections in the context of the bigger story,” Carpenter explains. “The story supports preserving the objects. We see now that it has no meaning to preserve these objects if you can’t tell stories that connect and resonate with people.”
The History Museum at the Castle has done a particularly good job of adapting to that change, and Carpenter and Mack agree it plays a large part in the museum’s longevity and ability to be able to celebrate 150 years.
World-class exhibits in Appleton
Current interactive exhibits include the ever-popular “AKA Houdini,” offering an insider’s look at the world-renowned magician and performer’s tricks. Born Ehrich Weiss, Houdini called Appleton home during his childhood and often referenced it as his hometown. This exhibit includes information about his childhood, early career, rise to fame and legacy with photos, video, and artifacts used by him.
“I think it’s by far our most popular exhibit,” Mack says. “(Houdini) is interesting for a number of reasons. People like the local connection… basically he has a rags to riches story. That resonates with people.
“With the internet, you can learn a lot of information, but it’s the experience of coming to the museum, going through the exhibit and learning something new together. Actually seeing handcuffs that Houdini used, learning the tricks to the trade, taking pictures along the way.”
Other current exhibits include the all-encompassing “Fox Cities ABCs.” Broken down by letter, the museum’s most popular artifacts are on display. “Play: The Golden Age of Toys” showcases the Fox Cities’ toy history, one that includes being home to several toy companies.
The History Museum at the Castle largely focuses on local stories, but also includes a broader sense of history within their blockbuster series.
“Sometimes people are surprised that we’re also doing really world-class nationally traveling exhibitions here,” Carpenter says.
Focusing on bringing in exhibits that “help the people in the community understand themselves better,” the museum recently brought in “Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame” from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
“We aren’t in Green Bay but this community is part of the Packerland area and we have the same spirit. I think it was an exciting opportunity for people to not only see the Green Bay Packers but the whole pro football effort and how our spirit here is influenced by that.”
Other national exhibits have included “GUITAR: The Instrument that Rocked the World” from the National Guitar Museum and “Leonardo Da Vinci Machines in Motion,” the latter of which brought particular pride.
“We had people who came in multiple times to see it and would say that they were so proud that Appleton was hosting,” Carpenter says. “They said, ‘I saw this in Florence, Italy.’ It was a pretty profound sense of pride. It reinforces your view of your community when you see lifelong learners who are looking to be challenged in their thoughts.”
History in the community
The History Museum at the Castle is located at 330 E College Ave in Appleton, but the museum offers pop-up exhibits that do just that: pop up at area organizations like schools, churches, organizations and libraries. They can be checked out for free, and provide a much-needed context for both locals and prospective residents.
“We’ve had a lot of success with traveling exhibits,” Mack says. “It’s a great way to take museum content outside of the museum… they’re entirely focused on personal stories and pictures. They all touch on different social histories. We’re leading what’s happening in public history. We know these are important subjects so we’re finding a way to talk about them.”
Current pop-up exhibits include “A Stone of Hope: Black Experiences in the Fox Cities,” “(In)Visible: Homelessness in Appleton,” “We Stand on Their Shoulders,” focusing on women in Wisconsin gaining political rights and “ Bridging the GAP Years, 1969-2019,” exploring growing divisions in American society.
“There’s a philosophy here that we’ve embraced the last couple of decades where we don’t shy away from the tough stories,” Carpenter explains. “That’s a strategy, really, to remain relevant and to do service to the field and what we can offer the community by not whitewashing or sugar coating the stories of the past. We can recognize the messiness of history.”
It’s a far cry from what the museum’s earliest founders had in mind.
“They would be shocked that we have taken it this way. We’re looking at the good and the bad and trying to figure out what that means for us,” Mack says. “But that also makes it more relevant and more meaningful for the community.
“The community as a whole recognizes the value of the institution and the value of their history. It’s worth preserving and digging into these stories and the history of Appleton and the Fox Cities. You can have the most passionate volunteers and you can have a great paid staff but if the community just doesn’t care, then you become irrelevant. It’s the combination of those things that make it all work.”
What’s next for the museum?
Expected to open to the public in 2023, “You Are Here” is the much-anticipated exhibit making its grand entrance in a newly constructed and converted basement at the The History Museum at the Castle.
“One of our key endeavors is to get momentum behind the redo of our core exhibition gallery, our core local history story,” Carpenter says. “In 1988 the Tools of Change was installed on two floors of the museum. Until this past year we were still living with about 50 percent of that exhibit on display.
“Times change, history interpretation changes, so Dustin and the exhibit team are working to help people to see their history in a new context, in a new setting.”
Stay tuned! The History Museum at the Castle is celebrating its 150th anniversary all year long!
Follow The History Museum at the Castle on social media and join their mailing list at www.myhistorymuseum.org to get updated information about how they’re highlighting their history throughout the years.
Feb. 25-27 Open House: Enjoy free admission, refreshments and displays focusing on and featuring the last 150 years.
Walking Tours: Geared toward what life was like 150 years ago.
July 13 “Song of the Pioneers: Founding the Outagamie County Pioneer Association”: Register for that walking tour, and others, on www.myhistorymuseum.org. Dates for other events have yet to be officially set.
Social media and e-blasts: Snapshots in history. Looking back with photos and artifacts, focusing on the longevity of the museum and community as a whole.