Friday, August 31, 2012

Showing some Minnesota museums the love they deserve.

When I started this occasional blog a year ago, writing about museums didn't factor in. Sure, I always gravitated toward good museums. Take me most anywhere and I'm ripe for some degree of indoor walkin' and learnin'. After the traveling I've done for research on this book, I now find myself in museums more often. Entirely by choice. Plus I've begun thinking about what works and why when it comes to a good museum. Rather than break down the blend of style and substance I look for in a museum, I'll throw down two examples I saw on this past trip through the upper Midwest. Not because I set out to write about them. Because I came to love what they each do, in entirely different ways.

The Minnesota History Center near the State Capitol in St. Paul has been there for 20 years - it hardly seems that long. The building itself sits on a perfect plot looking toward downtown and the Cathedral  of Stain Paul (what a coincidence) a miter toss from the old showy timber/frontier barons' manors in that grandiose hood. I had to set up an appointment to view things there on a Monday. Thanks to the delightful behind the scenes curatorial types, my direct interaction with the collection there was truly special and inspiring.

This museum offers upon special request a chance to see "3D Objects" from the Minnesota Historical Society's holdings. It was the full white gloves and chaperone interaction. If you really want to geek out in an area you are obsessed about - and you're willing to do your homework so you don't look like a buffoon - this is a truly special place to get your history on.

That interaction and the conversation that ensued then led me to drive just over an hour north of the Twin Cities to the living history museum up in Pine City. I've these sorts of places done well, insult the bejeezus out of visitors, and everywhere in between. Thankfully, the "North West Company" site there was incomparably good and refined in its active storytelling.

The fellow playing our tourguide / voyageur was particularly fantastic. Right down to the faux French verbal tics and the healthy improv playing off the the adorable kids in my group who could have been straight out of a Jeff Foxworthy video.

The point may take me a bit to get around to making later. Something about how good museums make you think once you've left the building and returned to the present. Whatever the moral to be spun from the larger narrative, a few places like these on a random Monday make me all the more happy to head for the next institution of moderately higher learner wherever I may be heading next. I hope you will, as well.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Purging some thoughts before filling up with Friday Fish Fry

This trip through the Upper Midwest has given me ample doses of everything I sought this time around. New information from sources I know I'll engage with going forward. A chance to reconnect with people and stories I continue to research. Hours on the road to reflect upon what I'm trying to pull together for a big book on a subject no one seems to have searched for previously. Unexpected pleasures and pains in both unfamiliar surroundings and while tracking down some old favorites. Like so many of the trips I've taken this past year, this is what I've come to see as simply life on the road in America. Today is my chance to reflect and transcribe while visiting a town not far from where I grew up. This is a place where we would come for summertime waterskiing shows and the occasional movie or run to the Dairy Queen. Unlike so much of America, this town and the others around it have changed little from the 70s and 80s. Maybe it even goes back farther. But the ubiquity of coffeeshops with free WiFi and decent espresso even to be found in places like Tomahawk offer a chance to connect the dots with some of the places I've seen along the way.

As I often do, I've collected a mental list of places worth mentioning for others to keep an eye out for when they're similarly out there navigating the vast landscape of America. Whether I'm being a highly selective filter or just a traveler looking for an upside wherever my feet hit the ground, I'll mention a few. With one crushing bummer to show that all's not uniformly inspiring out there on the road.
  • I was lucky to arrive on the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska just as their minor league baseball team (the Omaha Storm Chasers - the Royals's AAA squad) took the field against the Nashville Sounds (the Brewers's AAA squad).  Just outside the ticket office, a Little League coach was handing out free extra tickets - I grabbed one with a smile. Hot dogs were on special inside the stadium for a buck. Then the Sounds lit up the Omaha starter for 6 runs in the top of the second inning (on their way to a 9-1 victory). Baseball purists might look down their nose at what showed up on the field that night. But I was blissfully entertained after a day on the road.
  • For the second time - the prior being smack dab in the middle of winter - I made my way to the "Field of Dreams" movie site just outside Dyersville, Iowa. It was textbook example summer afternoon, with the outfield corn standing 9-feet-high (no drought conditions around a tourist attraction). Two pairs of Iowans asked me to take their pictures. Even if I'd had an anxious team looking to start practice, I couldn't have stayed longer. Just a run around the bases and a passel of pictures taken were more than special enough.
  • After visiting the Fort McHenry museum in Baltimore earlier this month, I'd had my interest piqued thanks to a reference to the solitary battle in these parts. So I planned for a stop in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin along the Mississippi River. The history part of town was a widely mixed bag, but there were many delights to be found. I even stayed at the Brisbois Motor Inn because of the epic kitsch quality of their signage around town. The motel was full of railroad workers and what I assumed to be a sizable number of drug mules. I didn't get even a little bit murdered. If you've got the time and itinerary to head through, also stop in at a coffeehouse on Blackhawk Avenue named Simply. It was all that and so much more.
  • When unpacking the usual Madison cliches, there should always still be a nod delivered for the shared energy that comes from State Street on a summer evening. But my favorite stretch while in there for little more than a day was to get a falafel platter from a stellar food truck (Banzo) and head out back of Memorial Union and to share the Badger familial energy. I followed that up with a visit to the Wisconsin Historical Society's Library on campus, stumbling into their "Wisconsin After the War of 1812" exhibit. I didn't go to school in Madison. I am a different cut of college-aged rodent (Gopher blood courses through these veins). But a lucky, happy sojourn like mine yesterday made me realize yet again how nice that would have been.
  • It's not all happy and inspired out there in America, obviously. The browned and sad fields of drought-stricken corn throughout Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin are just devastating to see. We'll be seeing the ripple effect of that sad sight in the grocery stores for the next few years.
There's more on my plate for the next few days before sticking a fork in this year's research travels. Up next I'm stoked for a Friday Fish Fry at the bar on picturesque Little Spirit Lake just two doors down from the house I lived in until I was 10-years-old. Because if you come to northern Sconnie without eating your weight in deep fried fish, you surely will be arrested. Not the cardiac kind, I hope. Here's hoping you get the walleye tonight, too.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The last hiatus...for now.

Please excuse the recent radio silence emitted from this platform. For a lingering moment longer, I'll be in Seattle. I've been charging up after my most recent research road trips and getting ready for what's on deck to round out the summer. The first of those recent rollers took me to D.C. and the surrounding states. It was a trip that featured some long hours, but I was still able to mix it up in ways that I love. I soaked up the hot, walkable history on display at Fort McHenry. I got lost in the mix of permanent exhibits (love those Presidential portraits) and a special show of artifacts from the War of 1812 within the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian Institution). I even managed to play the full-on inspired tourist, best exemplified by the lump lodged in my throat 'round sunset at the Jefferson Memorial. I didn't melt. It was grand.

Thereafter, I endured Delta losing my bag two separate times in 36 hours. I only mention it to blunt any anticipated surprise for what Delta may do to me next. Although if they lose my bag on this Saturday's direct flight to the Minneapple, I will begin to seriously doubt this as anything related to karma. Wait - I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Especially since I've not even mentioned the better part of a week I spent in Utah. I'm sounding awfully repetitive, but I fell hard for the Utahns met there - no matter how much I disagree with their collective moniker. Most of my time was spent in either Salt Lake City or Park City. I had great luck with a first foray into the genealogy resources and friendly Mormons to be found at their main Family History Library. I joined the chorus of appreciation for the fresh and stylish Natural History Museum of Utah (just opened in late 2011 - well worth a visit, especially if you've got kiddos to entertain). On the Park City side, chief among my enjoyed distractions were my visits to the Utah Olympic Park. Seeing kids doing acrobatic splashdowns into the pool off the ski jumps was the best display of exuberant rewards I saw on the whole trip. Although my morning runs up to that same park were a close second.

As a general summary of these field research trips, I'm glad to report I repeatedly found myself chucking old uninformed thoughts as I wrestled with newly unearthed inconsistencies. At this particular moment, I'm pulling together big ol' bundle of details to prepare for my final 10-day trip through the upper Midwest. But it's healthy to step back and see that this will complete nearly a year's travels that have taken me into parts of 14 American states and the District of Columbia, 2 Canadian Provinces and China. I've gathered nearly 5 days of audio tape from interviews and hundreds of pages of notes. All to what end? Well...that's coming. Regardless, it has been a glorious trip - not that it's over. Just transitioning. Here's hoping that even something as minor as a lost bag doesn't detract from the clarified focus I feel I've earned to use as I pull up to this next fork in the road.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On the road again - DC edition

I'm back on the research road - flying high above this quite large nation on my way to our Nation's capital. I'll spend a number of days on the ground there, pursuing a plethora of new angles. I arrive on a day I hope will not feature the Postal Service defaulting on the first of their sizable financial commitments. But that souffle may already be cooked, given that Congress hasn't acted on much of anything other than anti-abortion legislation as of late (unsuccessfully, it should be added). And what of the Ag Bill still hanging in limbo as the Nation struggles with a terrible drought? Not much happening there, either. What to do, you might ask, if there's so little goshdarn legislating being done in the required home of such activity? My schedule will be tight, but I am planning to mix it up with some frenzied museum time. Yes, I do indeed know how to party. For those keeping score at home, I have a wish list that includes the following:
  • Fort McHenry in Baltimore is a place I know little about other than the basics - think War of 1812, the origins of "The Star Spangled Banner", and probably a fair amount of other stuff. It requires a trek. For those paying attention, however, I do dig being this sort of trekkie.
  • Continuing along those Bicentennial themes, the National Portrait Gallery has a War of 1812 exhibit in place. I'd read a review a few months back that intrigued me. Prior to that, I only recall Stephen Colbert's hilarious pursuit of inclusion in the museum's holdings. Put this one at the top of my museum geek wish list for this visit.
  • To finish the short list the nerd-poriums I'm hoping to bag, a secret plan to visit the Spy Museum has always stuck in the back of my neck like a poison-tipped dart. In a good way. So add that little divulged secret to the ledger.
I do have other plans. I'll keep y'all updated, if you'll be so good as to check back. But we're heading into Memphis - wow, now that's a sunrise worth tweeting about. As in what a bird should be doing - there's another word lost forever to modernity.