When the Chippewa Valley Museum first opened its doors more than five decades ago, its mission was to connect with the community and preserve the region’s history.
As what many are calling a community “musical renaissance” continues to flourish, the museum just got one step closer to documenting that aspect of the Chippewa Valley. On Tuesday, the museum announced it has received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that will help fund a $275,000 collaborative community project, “Musical Identities.”
The project will be a multi-year initiative to expand and deepen access to Eau Claire’s culture by way of music and music history, said Chippewa Valley Museum director Carrie Ronnander.
“We’re always thinking about different things that the community is interested in and try to add it to our museum as a way to represent it,” Ronnander said. “There’s always been this interest in local music, and we’ve done a lot of work over the years collecting classic and traditional folk music and, if not collecting it, talking to folk artists. All of that has kind of bubbled up and now we’re working to capture it.”
The idea for the project, Ronnander said, originated with the “Sounds of Eau Claire” podcast that was launched at UW-Eau Claire in 2016.
Greg Kocken, university archivist, said “Sounds of Eau Claire” was born from a realization that the community’s understanding of local music was “kind of shallow.”
“We talk about Eaux Claires (Music & Arts Festival), we talk about indie rock and Bon Iver, we talk about the nationally-recognized jazz program at UW-Eau Claire,” Kocken said, “but the roots of music in our community are so much deeper than people realize.”
Kocken said he’s excited to see how their work can be continued at the Chippewa Valley Museum.
“What we see now is that we understand the deep roots of this current musical moment in Eau Claire, and we see an opportunity where the Chippewa Valley Museum can build upon what’s been achieved and tell this story now that we know more about it.”
“Musical Identities” includes plans for a new exhibit at the museum, which will work to document often forgotten about aspects of the community’s musical heritage, Ronnander said. That will include explorations into music brought to and born in lumbering camps throughout the Chippewa Valley, the classical music created within the walls of Eau Claire’s opera house in the late 1800s, as well as the music of Hmong and Native American cultures.
Viewpoints and content for the project will not only come from museum staff, but also from “Sounds of Eau Claire” and other community members who brought in instruments and music at the museum’s History Harvest last March.
“It’s a cooperative venture,” Ronnander said.
Though plans for the exhibit are still in preliminary stages as it will not open until next spring, Ronnander said she envisions listening stations so visitors can hear musical samplings of all genres and all time periods.
North Carolina professional folklorist and musician Joseph O’Connell will come to Eau Claire in April to begin documenting the role of traditional and community-based music in the Chippewa Valley by interviewing artists for podcasts, which will be released in the fall.
The project, Ronnander said, also includes plans to renovate the museum’s theater and create a new show to go with it. Because the theater’s technology hasn’t been updated since 1998, that is the highest expense of the project.
In addition, a music history walking tour mobile app is in the works with support and assistance from Visit Eau Claire.
“The idea is to take our music history and make it more democratic and more accessible,” Ronnander said. “You don’t have to come here to the museum to find out about history and music, you can be out in the community and participate.”
As fundraising efforts continue for “Musical Identities,” Ronnander said she’s thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with so many community partners.
“One of the goals and one of the needs of the museum is to make sure we have as many partners as possible to get things done, because we alone as an institution will not be able to do it,” she said. “And it’s fun, because people bring all kinds of ideas.”