Eight history majors at Gustavus Adolphus College have been busy this semester.
The students, under the leadership of Ben Leonard, Nicollet County Historical Society director, and history professor Sujay Rao, are creating an eight-panel exhibit for Lac qui Parle Mission. The project is being done in conjunction with the Minnesota and Chippewa County historical societies.
The current exhibit hasn't been updated since the '70s, Leonard said. And due to past successful projects that Leonard and Gustavus students have teamed up on, the Minnesota Historical Society asked that Leonard tackle the Lac qui Parle project in a similar fashion.
“It's really time for that to be looked at again and be freshened up,” he said.
The mission was established in 1835, and it's the site where the first Dakota dictionary, grammar and gospel were completed. A chapel was built there in the 1940s by the Works Progress Administration to house artifacts and exhibits related to the Dakota and missionaries.
With a budget of $10,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society and a limited time frame, Leonard said two-dimensional story panels with images and text made the most sense for the exhibit. Also, the site isn't staffed, so they can't incorporate “priceless artifacts in a non-temperature-controlled, non-staffed situation,” Leonard said.
Three panels will be outside the chapel to provide context, focusing on the story of Lac qui Parle; the Dakota Nation culture prior to settlers; the arrival of the missionaries and traders; the cultural schism that occurred; and the tremendous change that happened so quickly.
Inside the chapel the panels will focus on topics ranging from church, school, religion, language, community and kinship, Leonard said.
“We want to make this relevant to the site visitors today,” he said.
Leonard said there are innumerable perspectives on these events among Dakota people, settlers and others. Part of the goal of the exhibit will be to explore the complexity of the history.
“We're not trying to speak for Dakota people. There's not one Dakota voice, and there's not one voice for white (people) either,” Leonard said. “We're not trying to speak for any one group. We're trying to tell a story.
“We have to make a lot of choices about what we think is important,” he said.
The class began Sept. 3, and the project will be wrapped up by November so the designs can be sent to graphic designers with time left to proof and make changes. The bulk of the course will focus on creating the exhibit, but it also will give students a means to explore public-history careers.
“Several (students) have a real interest in pursuing a career in public history,” Leonard said.
Leonard has taught at Gustavus during a few January terms and has worked with students to create historical traveling exhibits. Among them was a class on the Dakota War he co-taught with English professor Elizabeth Baer in 2012, and the class' final project was a traveling Dakota War exhibit that has been presented in about 25 locations. In December it will be shipped for presentation at the Smithsonian in New York and then in Washington, D.C.
“It worked out really well and beyond our expectations,” Leonard said. “These traveling exhibits are something we're going to focus on in the future.”