You are headed for the 1862 exhibit at the History Center in St. Paul, the exhibit of the hour, the thing to see in this 150th anniversary year. To get there you go to the third floor and reach a long hallway that leads to the exhibit. On the left you see a large open gallery with lesser-known, but interesting WPA paintings from 1934 of cities and farms. That gallery has a lot of open space in the center where you can stand and view the paintings from a distance, though the captions are small and mostly illegible unless seen from a few inches or so away.
However, 1862 is on your mind, so you resist 1934 and keep going. On the left as you go are images representing a few people, whites and Dakotas, with some text telling what they were doing the day before the well-known events of August 18, 1862. You reach a point where the hall ahead is blocked by the narrow exit of the exhibit you are about to see. The main part of the exhibit starts to the left, and you turn left to walk into a space that is smaller than the hallway you have just exited. This space is blocked in the center by an island that sends visitors one way or another through narrow passages on either side. In this section is the historical context, treaties, events, settlement, things that contributed to the well-known events of 1862.
There is a lot of text here which is good if people read it. Even though you do not intend to be picky you see a few errors or at least errors from your point of view. You disagree with one point on the 1851 treaty and with something else about the 1805 treaty. No one will notice these points, probably: The thing about exhibits with a lot of text is that it will only be absorbed fully by a few people; its effect for most people will be to impress them by its presence rather than its content. But the text is there for people who might say: “But you did not mention X.” The curators can say: “You missed X. It is over there in the corner by the rifle.”
Then you see the photograph of Alexander H. H. Stuart, who often signed his name A. H. H. Stuart. You can’t remember what the H’s stand for. The caption says he was one of the 1851 treaty commissioners, which you know is not true. The commissioners were Alexander Ramsey and Luke Lea, who signed the treaty that is hanging on the wall over there. Stuart was the Secretary of Interior, who sent out the instructions for the treaty. Does it really matter, you wonder. Mistakes are made when doing any history. It is wrong to seize on one thing to make it symbolize the whole. The exhibit can be wrong about Stuart but still be right about many other things.
There are panels about settlement in the Minnesota River Valley. Is there anything new here? Maybe not. But maybe that doesn’t matter, either. Everyone has to read about it, the curators believe. Every generation must confront it. This means the same stories have to be told again and again. This time the stories feel fragmented though that might be a good thing, because fragmentation—making the story less seamless—might lead to breaking up the old Master Narrative, the white people’s view of 1862 which was the main 1862 story for 150 years. Still there is a lot here and in what follows about the settlers. The curators made sure that the settlers were covered. No one can say: “But what about the white people?”
At this point it is clear that you are being shunted sharply right into a new section of the exhibit, past a large sign labeled War, through a very narrow passage into an even more crowded gallery that feels like a maze. Again there is a panel and a case in the center, followed by another with very little room on either side. On a busy day this place is crowded. There is little room for standing back and getting perspective, unless you want to see things through people’s hair and over their shoulders. What’s worse is that if you really want to spend time taking in the text you suspect that the lady in front of you is going to accuse you of spending too much time too close to her back.
There seem to be a lot of guns, four to be exact, a shotgun, a rifle, a revolver, and a musket, but maybe I missed one or two more. Gwen Westerman said in her presentation at the History Center on July 25 that the guns were at a child’s eye view which is true, though some of them are standing upright so that they are also at level of a tall adult too, as though they were standing guard over the gallery. This is a bit unnerving, reminiscent of a country museum in 1910, but perhaps that serves an evocative purpose. Many people like to look at guns, including boys, as I recall.
Now as you try to squeeze through the available space it comes over you that this exhibit arrangement is a complete nightmare. Then you realize that this must have been planned carefully. These narrow passages are what the curators intended. It is implicit in the way they approached the whole idea of the exhibit: 1862, they said, was something every Minnesotan had to confront. And they were going to make them do it. And part of that was not just having a lot of text and images, but also making the exhibit into an uncomfortable physical experience, a maze made up of narrow unavoidable historical passages, representing the inevitability of the events of 1862. If you survived you would be spit out the other side changed in some way. 1862, the curators must have been thinking, is Minnesota’s nightmare and we should treat it that way.
You keep thinking of the running of the bulls at Pamplona and how they are funneled down a long narrow street and people run in front of them to show their bravery, trying not to get gored. Here in the 1862 exhibit you might try to run away from history, but it would catch up with you, you would get gored one way or another. The curators would see to that. But perhaps they had something less violent in mind, such as the artist Marina Abramovic’s work Imponderabilia (1977, reenacted in 2010) where you had to walk through a doorway in which two performers, both completely nude, stood on either side. Embarrassing but perhaps not fatal.
The maze-like center part of the 1862 exhibit which records the battles leads to another right turn, mazelike, into the aftermath of 1862, followed by another sharp right turn into a space at the beginning of the exhibit containing the prequel to 1862. This space has a pillar in the center, and the room around it is narrow but not so confused as what you have just been through. Here is a lot of information about what happened to individual settlers and on the other side there is information on what happened to the Dakota en masse, the trials, the hangings, the concentration camp, Davenport, the exile to Crow Creek. Then the exhibit ends, with a board on the wall where the visitor is invited to put up a post-it note, with comments. No, not actually comments, just one word: “What single word would you use to describe your feelings after viewing this exhibit?”
One word? After all that, one word? After all we have been through, the detailed text, the disorienting, fragmented, painful experience of this exhibit, all you want to hear from me is one word? The curators wanted you to have a profound experience but were just not that interested in what you had to say afterward. It is as though you started to tell someone a long, life-changing story about actually getting gored by a bull at Pamplona and the person you are telling this to says: “Can you keep it short? I have stuff to do.” And in this case I suppose the MHS staff probably do have stuff to do. I think they are exhausted by the whole 1862 experience and would like to move on. But before they go, like the interviewer James Lipton, they just want to know what fruit you would be if you were a fruit.
That last thing is harsh and you can’t quite believe you actually said it. But the one word thing is especially jarring given the panel just before the post-it notes where the process of exhibit creation is described. Here’s how Daniel Spock, director of the MHS History Center Museum put it:
This exhibit is one of the products of “The US-Dakota War of 1862 Truth Recovery Project,” an initiative of the Minnesota Historical Society. The initiative was inspired in part by Healing Through Remembering, a Belfast-based organization that defines “truth through recovery” as the “uncovering and revealing of ‘what happened.’”
The term “truth recovery” might imply that there is a single unassailable truth about what happened before, during, and after the war. That is certainly not the case. There are now and have always been multiple interpretations of what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible. The process for creating this exhibit has led us to seek out these perspectives and we have learned invaluable things from many experts and descendants of those from all sides who experienced the war. Their generosity has shaped the interpretation you find here.
In presenting this exhibit, our goal is to inform, to inspire, and to initiate a public dialogue that will resonate far beyond the goals of this gallery—to redefine the Society’s role from that of an authoritative institution to one that fosters and facilitates public discussion, and debate.
Who can argue with telling the truth? It is a noble aim. The process through which this came about seems to have been an extensive one, with numerous conversations about many aspects of 1862 with many different people. In carrying out this process it is clear that the MHS staff did not limit those they spoke with to one word. Yet the result was similar. Having asked their consultants for complex reactions to 1862, over many hours, the exhibit has reduced that complexity in order to put it on the wall. No matter how detailed exhibit captions are they can never do justice to that process.
Any truth recovery project worth its salt would produce a complex record which would nourish generations of study and thought. But the need to put something on the wall in a constricted space has scaled down the result to an account of 1862 that is remarkably similar in content and emphasis as those of the past, though intensified emotionally through its constricted maze-like layout. You wonder where you can get a copy of the long report the exhibit staff wrote about the experience of working on the exhibit. That would be worth reading. You think about filing a Minnesota Data Practices Act request but then you remember that the Minnesota Historical Society is not considered a state agency so it is not subject to the law. Also you realize that a report may not have been written. Perhaps in twenty years someone will do oral history interviews with the staff and in another fifty years another exhibit will be created describing this exhibit.
You wonder what truth is displayed in the exhibit? Is there anything here that is “indisputable”? That word was one used by exhibit curators in the sifting of objects for use in the exhibit. The guns, for example, may have been indisputable in the sense that there may be no argument about their use in 1862. But of course the choice of displaying them is highly disputable and they have many meanings for many people today. How you sort out the meanings of guns and rope or anything else related to 1862 is not a simple task. It is not simply a case of reporting a few simple facts about them. But in the end, “disputable items” are much more interesting than indisputable ones.
No one questions that that there two 1851 treaties signed or attested to by the Dakota, but do we really, even now, know the meaning of those treaties? In fact, what the treaties accomplished in a legal sense, not to mention a lot of other senses, is still subject to dispute. Did 1862 begin on August 18, or in 1851, or was it centuries before? Was Henry Sibley the chief engineer of 1862 or did he have some help? These are all questions for discussion even if the materiality of certain objects may be clear. Ultimately no single word, or even simple caption can faintly suggest the complex nature of these disputable meanings.
Some of the one-word reactions written on post-it notes illustrate the discordant quality of trying to limit visitor comments to one word apiece. Can we all agree that “Intense” or “Solemn” cover 1862 nicely? How very like Minnesota, a place where citizens are expected to limit their emotions and where we all try to reach some bland consensus. Fortunately many visitors resist the instructions and give more complex and wordy answers. In the midst of “Solemn,” and “Tragedy,” someone wrote: “I am glad to see the record set straighter about the US gov’t perfidious treatment of the Dakota natives. Sadly the US gov’t still persecutes native peoples in the USA.” But perhaps many people would disagree with that statement event if they could unite behind the word “Tragedy.”
Now as you stand in this space at the end of the exhibit you are lost in conflicting thoughts but finally the press of business forces you through a last narrow passage labeled Memory, and you are back at the beginning, where on a busy day, perhaps you might be shunted through the maze again, unless you could escape into the pastoral and industrial world of 1934 down the hall.
What will be your Memory of 1862? The Minnesota Historical Society is seeking to avoid its traditional role as an arbiter of history, but no matter what it does it helps create memories, consciously or unconsciously, through its exhibits and other activities. The 1862 exhibit will do the same. Those who want a more complex history to be told will always want to avoid the nightmarish quality of this kind of historical maze which is, in fact, a remnant of the views of past generations about 1862 in which every new fact was used to reproduce the same historical consensus. Those who want a more complex history to be told will always prefer that history be seen in a larger historical room, where there is more space for context and for reflection. And they will find the 1862 exhibit unsatisfying, even if they might praise the exhibit including a nuance here and a complexity there.
Perhaps the MHS exhibit staff is right, 1862 is a nightmare from which Minnesota has never escaped, and that if we ever want to wake up from it we have to bravely pass through repeated retellings of it. But instead of leading to a sense of awakening, this exhibit seems more than anything to continue reliving the nightmare.
Obviously this is just one opinion about the 1862 exhibit. Others are welcome, but, please, use all your words.