Class at the Museum

Public history students curate their own exhibit

By Carly Wolf

The slicing of a two-handed saw. A tractor engine starting. A combative cluck from what can only be described as a “very aggressive chicken.” These evocative sounds were selected by Dr. Patrick Mullins’ public history students to help museum visitors experience the lives of Wisconsin farmers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

This soundscape is part of a curated exhibit Marquette students built called “Hooves to Tires,” part of a new collaboration with Milwaukee’s Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear. It’s an opportunity that makes Dr. Mullins’ Public History course unique.

The course includes the requisite readings and discussions, but trips to various museums provide students with valuable insight from museum professionals.

That paid off last semester in “Museum Lab,” in which students applied what they’d learned by building their own museum exhibit — from idea formation, research, design, construction and presentation.

“Public history is, by its nature, different from regular history because it’s all about engagement with the community,” Dr. Mullins said. “But most public history courses typically focus on reading about public history. In my course, I tried as much as possible to keep students out of the classroom.”

The students were given access to the Chudnow Museum’s historical collection of everyday objects from early-19th to late-20th century Wisconsin. A cache of agricultural objects inspired the class to tell the story of Wisconsin farmers.

Their exhibit shows the dramatic changes that Wisconsin farmers experienced as machine power replaced the muscle power of humans and animals. Machines helped the agricultural economy grow, and Milwaukee emerged as the largest exporter of grain in the world. For the students, this story demonstrates farming’s importance to the people of Milwaukee — past, present and future.

“It may seem like museum exhibits just spring up out of the ground,” Dr. Mullins said, “but once the students were in this process, they realized just what an enormous amount of thought and effort goes into even a fairly small exhibit. It’s really great fun to work with history in a tangible way by offering it to a wider public.”

The student’s exhibit, “Hooves to Tires: The Mechanization of Wisconsin Agriculture,” will be on display at The Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear until early fall 2018. Admission to the museum is $6 for adults and $5 for college students with ID. More information can be found online at chudnowmuseum.org.