Big Blue Friday: Two MHS Exhibits with Kids

Black Friday at MHS

If you know me IRL, you know I’d rather do almost anything than mall-shop –ever, much less on Black Friday. Thursday night, my husband was the hero who took our twelve-year old daughter shopping at 9:30 PM. They came home and crashed at 12:30 AM, happy.

Hope, my eight year old, woke me up at 5:11 AM for date with her sister, Mercy, age nine.

When it was light enough to see this (it was dark when we arrived), the girls dubbed our adventure, “Big Blue Friday.”

What is Big Blue Friday?  As I took this picture at 5:45 AM at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, a stranger behind me observed, “What does this tell you about Minnesota? How cool is this? All these people got up before dawn to bring their kids to do history!”

Incentives made it fun: knit caps for the first 200 children (they were gone by 6:00 AM) and the prospect of a free MHS Memberships for the first 50 families. (Word is that the memberships went to people the staff found waiting outside when they arrived at 5:00 AM!)

Other inducements: Free breakfast. Free parking. Shopping bags with coupons (some with cool prizes). A 25% off shopping voucher Both gift shops open at 6:00 AM.

AND the opening of the new Then, Now, Wow exhibit.

So after breakfast, my girls and I headed up to the third floor. We didn’t know all the exhibits would be open until we got upstairs. When we saw the crowd headed for Then, Now, Wow we veered off to the Dakota War of 1862 gallery.

U.S. Dakota War of 1862

My twelve-year-old daughter and I have been through the 1862 exhibit twice. But I have not made a point of taking my eight- and nine-year old daughters. When I saw everyone  headed the other way, I thought: The gallery will be almost empty; we’ll have space to talk about it.

The exhibit was not designed for children and the mood in the 1862 gallery every time I’ve been it has been thoughtful, somber.

But Friday morning there was space for the girls to touch the words, to sit down on the floor by Mary Schwandt’s bullet-riddled skirt for a conversation. A woman I did not know, a mom with children, joined us. Unlike me, the other mom was not tongue-tied at 6:15 AM, when my eight year old asked:

“Mom, what do you mean Mary was a ‘captive’? What’s that? Did Dakotas steal her? Why didn’t her mom and dad stop them?”

While I was trying to frame up an answer, the other mom spoke up.

“Yes. She was stolen. Being  ‘captive’ is when somebody takes you. You don’t want to be taken but they don’t give you any choice. Her mom and dad couldn’t help her because they were dead.”

Well, I thought. You did not mention Dakota people at all or how or when Mary’s parents died. That was fast thinking. But I can’t let it go at that; losing parents is pretty real-life for some kids.

I pointed to this picture of Maggie Brass on the wall. “In Dakota, her name was Snana. Snana adopted Mary as her daughter.  Snana loved Mary and kept her safe until the war was over.” I could almost see the relief in a child’s eyes.

How crazy is this? I observed in my head. When we were editing the text I brought up the convention of using the name each person used for herself. So they nixed Holcombe’s ‘Snana’ and restored Maggie’s ‘Maggie Brass.’ But here I am telling her story to children and I’m using her Dakota name because without it she could be a white woman in braids. Children need to know she’s Dakota, too; “Dakotas” are not just the warriors who shot at Mary Schwandt.

The shooting came next. Gwen Westerman is right. The weapons in the exhibit are at child eye-level. My girls were confused by the time their tally reached one pistol and two rifles.

“So this was one of those wars where the white people killed the Indian people?” my daughter asked. “Did white people shoot the bullet holes in Mary’s skirt?”

In the exhibit, all the weapons belonged to white people.

How do you explain ‘war is hell’?? How do you explain how soldiers of every race compensate with hagiography?

“Yes. These are all weapons white men used to fight. Dakota men used weapons, too; the holes in Mary’s petticoat were made by bullets from a Dakota gun.   But Dakota people asked not to have anything that belonged to them on display. There are no Dakota weapons in this room.”

“So the white people kept these guns because they are special?” asked my little one who sleeps next to a curio cabinet of special things ranging from tiny purple teacups to sparkly rocks. “It was just an ordinary gun before?” she pressed. “But if you shoot it in a war it gets to be in a museum?”

“Pretty much,” I answered.

What else could I say? ‘We don’t curate objects; we curate stories.’ ??

By the time we reached the tombstones at the end of the 1862 exhibit, they were ready to camp out again and we finally got down to discussing the ‘Why‘s of the war.

Again, I was struck how different children are. The 1862 exhibit was developed for adults. So the ‘Why‘s of the story –the provocations and grievances –are presented up-front. But my girls cruised past the ‘Why‘s and didn’t pause until they got to the ‘What‘s of the war. They experienced the ‘What‘s via the 3-D objects, even processing 2-D words with their fingers. Only after my girls found out what happened did they begin pondering why.

We sat on the floor under Ellen McConnell’s tombstone and talked about making and breaking promises. About hunger. About anger and ways people express it.

Mercy summed up, “So Dakota people tried using their words. But nobody listened?” She was puzzled. “Why didn’t anybody listen? We’re supposed to listen. We’re supposed to help. We’re supposed to keep our promises.”

Hope couldn’t reduce her thoughts to the requested one word, but confined her words to one Post It: “War is interesting but something is hard to understand. But…hmm…too much killing.”

The bottom line really is pretty simple, isn’t it?

Then, Now, Wow

Then we headed across the hall. “Yeah!” Hope enthused. “I want to see George Washington’s teeth again!” Same gallery, different exhibit :).

Then, Now, Wow is the Children’s Museum meets MHS. This exhibit is a no-brainer: if you have children or grandchildren, GO! MHS under-billed it by not putting an exclamation point on “Wow!”

If you turn right inside the door, first-up is a fur-trade post exhibit. Go soon to touch new pelts.  I’ve chaperoned many a history field trip and I’ve ever handled beaver and otter that hasn’t been petted by thousands of children before of me. Wrap one around your hand, skin-side out, and imagine the softness and warmth of a Dakota mitten.

Next up: an iron ore mine. If your child is sensitive to sound, you may want to skip the mine. A hard-surfaced room filled with children simultaneously operating drilling machines was a little much for Hope. But Then, Now, Wow is arranged so you can easily bypass the mine. Kids who read and follow instructions will enjoy the mine simulation.

As we emerged from the mine, we were drawn to this tipi in the center of the exhibit. Eighteen months ago I talked with the artist, Bobby Dues, while this tipi was still on the drawing board. It was fun to see how it turned out! I won’t show you what’s inside so you can enjoy it yourself. But don’t miss the sign above the door as you exit :).

Hope hesitated at the sight of boys hovering over what appeared to be a freshly killed bison. Then. Next she watched the boys reach inside and pull out a pastel liver bearing a QR code. Now. Wow.

Hope tentatively tugged one of the bison’s hooves. It came off in her hand. She carried it to the QR scanner which announced that Dakota people used a bison hoof as a musical instrument like a tambourine.

Opposite the bison body is a display case holding models of objects made from parts of a real bison.

I could imagine a Dakota interpreter here talking about how then bison ranged into now‘s Minnesota and sacrificed themselves to keep the oyate (people) fed, clothed, and sheltered; how Dakota people thanked the bison for his sacrifice and honored it by not wasting any parts; how the Dakota man who killed a bison did not keep it all but shared the bounty like the children were sharing. Bison is still the favorite meat of many Dakota people. But now they get it at the butcher or the grocery store.

In my imagination, the QR scanner spoke the word for the body part in Dakota, Dakota language day camp in the exhibit… My brain perseverated on language until the girls scanned the last of the bison’s parts and we moved on.

We next encountered a plow without oxen (kids power the plow and the ox yokes –without cooperation, none of the tread mills turn) and a sod house, perhaps the home of the plow’s owner.

On the other side of the sod house was the Soo Line grain car, which might be more Now! with a special contribution from Bobby 🙂 .

To the left of the Soo Line car, the not-to-be-missed (we couldn’t find it at first) refurbished Grain Elevator/climber extravaganza.

To the right of the Soo Line car was a huge puzzle map of Minnesota. Kids arranged and rearranged the laminated cubes to complete the map. It was, to my surprise, a very popular activity. A dozen kids, most of whom did not know each other, cooperated to complete a task which, like plowing, was too big to do alone.

Next we found an amazing street car where every window opened for a peek at what went on inside the building glimpsed from that window. Like the women in this photo might have taken the street car to work at this candy factory.

By the time we found this car to crank to life, our brains were numb from rising early and  two exhibits worth of information-overload. The donut energy had worn off about the time we reached the QRed-bison.

In my twenty years of frequenting the History Center, it was the first time I ever saw the sun rise through the windows of the rotunda, much less watched it with my daughters.

We hope MHS repeats Big Blue Friday next year!

Even if they give it a more conventional name :).

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