The local movement is strong in Eau Claire. Shop local. Eat local. Support local artists. Retain local talent. Encourage local development. The movement makes good economic sense and builds community pride.
What I’m not hearing quite as loudly is “support local museums.” What could be more local than a museum focused on the history and culture of the Chippewa Valley, where everything in the building was given, or made or used by local residents, where the whole focus of the organization is to “connect people to our community?”
That is the mission of the Chippewa Valley Museum, located in Carson Park. It was organized in 1966 because concerned citizens wanted to make sure local treasures, local places and local memories were not lost and forgotten. They wanted to preserve the uniqueness and identity of their community.
What happened when there wasn’t a museum? In the mid-20th century, hundreds of local newspaper photographs were sent to a landfill because they were taking up valuable space and Chippewa Valley Museum didn’t exist. One-of-a-kind photographs got tossed when there wasn’t a museum.
But the Chippewa Valley Museum is more than a building filled with local photos. It has research materials not found elsewhere. Google and Wikipedia are poor sources for local questions. Last year, the Chippewa Valley Museum fielded 186 research and photo requests, many from local news media, and others from students, businesses and even the public library reference desk.
The museum is more than a place to do research. The Chippewa Valley Museum offered 104 different programs last year, ranging from biking tours to women’s history lectures to folk art workshops to summer youth classes. On-site and off-site youth and adult programs mean something different is always happening at the Chippewa Valley Museum.
The museum is more than a place for adults. Hands-on experiences, both in exhibits and in programs, engage students in ways that classrooms cannot. A Children’s Gallery with real stories about real kids, with activities that teach through the hard work of play, puts children first. Four thousand students on school trips visited the Chippewa Valley Museum last year, some from as far away as Sparta and Hayward.
The museum is more than a place for learning. The Chippewa Valley Museum has a working 1950s ice cream parlor, theater show, 1867 log house and exhibits that trigger discussions, questions and surprise. It is a social place where families and friends can share experiences and a place that shows off the community.
The museum is more than a place in Carson Park. It is one of only three accredited museums in all of western, northern and central Wisconsin. In the last decade, it has brought in over $2 million in federal grants for exhibit projects and teacher development programs, money that has been spent locally. The Chippewa Valley Museum is a community anchor and a partner in community development.
There are hundreds of people who donate time and money to make sure the Chippewa Valley Museum can be all these things. And yet, the Eau Claire community of 68,000, with a greater metro area of 161,000, is relying on 950 members to do what no other organization in the city is able to do — save its history.
My request to Eau Claire is to include the Chippewa Valley Museum in the local movement. If you care about preserving and promoting the local identity of this community, then put action into your words. The Chippewa Valley Museum is your museum and it needs you. If you, the people who live and work here, don’t visit or become members or support your local museum, who will? Who will save your history?
Ronnander, Chippewa Valley Museum director, may be reached at email@example.com.