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Big Blue Friday

November 23, 2012

Those who know me IRL know I’d rather do almost anything than mall-shop –ever, much less on Black Friday. So last night, my husband was the hero who took Faith shopping at 9:30 PM. They came home and crashed at 12:30 AM, happy.

Hope, a walking alarm clock, overslept a bit, but woke me up at 5:11 AM for a Mommy, Mercy, and Hope date.

On the way home, when it was light enough to see this outside (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 while it lasted. Free parking. Shopping bags with coupons (some with cool prizes). A 25% off shopping coupon. Both gift shops open at 6:00 AM.

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

So after breakfast, we 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 exhibit.

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, hushed.

But this 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. Another mom with children joined us. Unlike me, she 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 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 this I suggested we use the name each individual used for herself. So they nixed Holcombe’s ‘Snana’ and restored ‘Maggie Brass.’ But here I am telling her story 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 guys who shot at Mary Schwandt.

The guns came next. Gwen Westerman is right. The weapons 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 for war 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 to not 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 has 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 –my girls like cemeteries;  the headstone photos attracted them from afar –we camped out again and got down to discussing the ‘Why‘s of the war.

Again, I was struck how different children are. The 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 the ‘What‘ of the war. They experienced the ‘What‘ via the 3-D objects, including 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. They understand that. Hunger. They understand that, too, sort of. We talked 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 a single 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 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 can follow instructions will enjoy the mine simulations.

When 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 in-concept. 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. Then she saw them 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 the bison’s part. Bison, hunted almost to extinction by white men, are now coming back. Bison is still Dakota people’s favorite meat. But now they get it at the butcher or the grocery store.

Then I thought of the QR scanner giving the word for the part in Dakota; then of Dakota language day camp in the exhibit… My brain was perseverating on language!

Finally, the girls scanned all 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 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. But I love this photo of Mercy cranking thin air, giving her sister a hand.

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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