State Historical Museum makes for a great grade school refresher course
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MADISON -- No matter where you live in Wisconsin, you probably possess at least a passing knowledge of the history of your city, town or neighborhood. Local history manifests itself on a regular basis, through street names and architecture, advertising and media. But chances are you were in grade school the last time you took a good, hard look at the roots of Wisconsin.
Fortunately, a refresher course is just a day trip away at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., on Madison's Capitol Square.
In this free-admission museum (they suggest a modest $4 donation when you visit), you'll find four floors of interactive exhibits chronicling the history of the Badger State from 12,000 years ago to today.
The first floor contains a gift shop and meeting rooms, but the second is a permanent exhibit called "People of the Woodlands." It's dedicated to the Native Americans who called Wisconsin home, with dioramas of an Aztalan house from Jefferson County and a fur trading post. If you grew up in Wisconsin, it's nothing you haven't seen before, but the museum does a nice job presenting this era of state history in a way that's educational for kids and interesting for adults.
The third floor is called "On Common Ground," and examines agriculture, immigration, frontier life and the other industries that people associate with Wisconsin. The floor is segmented into distinct areas with ample room for docents providing tours to school groups, but it's also spacious enough to let older visitors wander the exhibits quietly.
The fourth floor is home to the best part of the museum, a temporary exhibit called "Odd Wisconsin." It highlights the era of the "X-ray shoe sizer," the paper dress, the American flag made with brassieres, the circus freakshow and the state's early fascination with trick photography. This is the kind of exhibit in which you can spend hours wandering and interacting, alternating between shock, horror and awe at the museum's collection of curious artifacts from just a century ago.
The fourth floor also houses exhibits from the 20th century, including a section on the state's socialist roots and its tavern history. It closes with a few dioramas depicting typical Wisconsin life in the '80s and '90s that seem a little superfluous compared to the wigwam downstairs.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum might not teach you much that you didn't learn in fourth grade -- though "Odd Wisconsin" is really fascinating -- but the exhibits are all well-done and surprisingly comprehensive.
Everyone knows that Madison is a great playground for adults. The Wisconsin Historical Museum adds a nice educational experience for kids and history lovers of any age.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It's closed on Sundays ad Mondays. It's fully accessible to visitors with disabilities.
There is also a great Wisconsin veteran's museum in that area. Very cool to spend an hour or two there.
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