Gone are the days when museums were dusty archives of half-forgotten lore. Wisconsin is full of bright, interactive learning environments that stress teaching important lessons over merely archiving historical minutiae, and some of the most interesting and unique examples are tightly condensed into downtown Madison.
Spring is coming, but there are still stormy days that beg for indoor activity. Five of Madison’s “little” museums – three on the Capitol Square and two on the University of Wisconsin campus – offer some big ideas for visitors to consider.
UW-Madison is a world-renowned research university with countless resources at its disposal. Two different schools within the university share their wealth with the general public via two innovative museums.
Those who think geology is merely the study of rocks will have their eyes opened by a visit to the UW-Madison Geology Museum, housed in Weeks Hall on the south edge of campus. Founded in 1848, the same year Wisconsin became a state, the Geology Museum is a perennial favorite among visitors thanks to its large collection of rocks, minerals and fossils.
Home to 120,000 geological and paleontological specimens, UWMGM is best known for its fossilized dinosaur and early mammal skeletons. The collection also includes reptiles, fish, birds and paleogene mammals from the Jurassic, Cretaceous, Paleozoic and Early Silurian periods. The museum also is a repository for vertebrate fossils from federal lands and National Park specimens.
Clearly, UWMGM really rocks, and in more ways than one.
The UW-Madison Geology Museum, located in Weeks Hall at 1215 W. Dayton St., is free and open to the public from 8:30 to 4:40 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Guided tours are available at a nominal cost of $2 per visitor. For more information, visit geoscience.wisc.edu/museum_wp.
Those who want to get their physics on – and who among us doesn’t? – will want to visit the L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum, located in Chamberlin Hall in the heart of the UW campus. Established in 1918 and celebrating its centennial in 2018, the museum was one of the first in the nation devoted to the study of physics.
It's also an incredibly interactive museum, asking patrons to dive into physics hand-first. The museum's six subject areas are mechanics, computer-based physics, electricity and magnetism, light and optics, wave and sound, and modern physics, and each features multiple experiments to explore. "Light and Optics" alone offers 14 different interactive activities, giving visitors to the smallest of these five options some of the most vibrant experiences.
The L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum, located in Chamberlin Hall at 1150 University Ave., is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. The experience is self-guided, but guided group tours can be arranged. For tour and other information, contact Program and Museum Manager Steve Narf at 608-262-3898 or .
The Wisconsin Veterans Museum would boast a bigger collection were it not for tragedy: a 1904 fire that gutted the city's Capitol building and destroyed many of the Civil War relics stored there. The remaining collection was itinerant for many years afterward, moving around the Capitol and growing with each armed national conflict. In 1993, it finally found a home right across the street.
The Veterans Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate institution, boasts 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. Its displays chronicle American wars from the Civil War to modern-day Middle East conflicts. The museum has more than 3,000 artifacts, and an estimated 90,000 visitors pass through its doors each year.
Its first-class permanent exhibitions bring visitors into dioramas with the men and women who have served. The museum also offers online exhibits, to explore subjects in greater depth, and a traveling exhibit program that brings the museum's collection to different locations around the state.
And it hosts temporary exhibitions, many featuring works from outside the museum's collection. Its current exhibit even dabbles in the realm of visual art. War: Raw features 59 dramatic pieces of art created by Wisconsin veterans as a way of recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The art therapy program is sponsored by the nonprofit Artists for the Humanities, and helps veterans confront unresolved trauma, embrace personal growth and successfully reintegrate into civilian life.
War: Raw is on display through May 8. The Wisconsin Veterans Museum at 30 W. Mifflin St. is free and open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Call 608-267-1799 or visit wisvetsmuseum.com for more details.
Across the street from the Veterans Museum you can learn even more about our state’s past by visiting the Wisconsin Historical Museum. As the public face of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the museum has extensive archives, and displays them through exhibits, programs and lectures about the growth and development of the Badger State.
Three floors of exhibition space chart Wisconsin’s history, from the first Native American residents through its frontier period to the establishment of cities and towns. Historical artifacts are joined by photos, maps, paintings and other objects to tell Wisconsin’s story.
The museum may be best known for its “History Sandwiched In” noon lunch lecture series. Upcoming installments include discussions of Ole Evinrude, the Wisconsinite who invented the first outboard motor for boats (March 15), the lavish Lake Geneva mansion Black Point Estate (April 5), Wisconsin families during World War II (April 19), and Native American effigy mounds (May 3). Bring a bag lunch, sit back and experience history.
The Wisconsin Historical Museum at 30 N. Carroll St. is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and closed on major holidays. Admission is free to Historical Society members; nonmembers are asked for an admission donation of $5 for adults and $3 for children. For more information, call 608-264-6555 or visit historicalmusuem.wisconsinhistory.org.
The final option is by far the largest and best known — and technically isn't a "museum," per se. But the Wisconsin State Capitol, in the center of Madison’s isthmus, offers plenty of history as well as an occasional chance to see history in the making.
The current Capitol building is the state’s third structure in that spot. The first Capitol, built in 1838, was replaced by a larger structure in 1863. When the 1904 fire destroyed that building, a third, even grander Capitol was built between 1906 and 1917 at a cost of $7.25 million.
Legend has that the current Capitol building was originally five inches taller than the national Capitol in Washington D.C., due to a statue of an eagle that graced the top of the dome. The eagle was subsequently replaced by Daniel Chester French’s shorter (but no less elegant) statue “Wisconsin" — not, as it's often mistakenly called, "Miss Forward," the name of a smaller statue on the Capitol grounds. The Athena-like bronze statue of a woman with a badger on her head reduces the building's height to a nationally acceptable level below that of the national Capitol.
The State Capitol’s biggest draw is its monumental architecture, produced from 43 varieties of stone, and the series of murals located throughout the building. The Capitol dome, which peaks at 200 feet above the ground, is the country’s only granite dome. Artist Edwin Blashfield’s mural “Resources of Wisconsin” lavishly decorates the ceiling of the rotunda.
The murals continue through the state Supreme Court, Senate and Assembly chambers. The Governor’s Conference Room also boasts a decorated ceiling and historic portraiture.
History buffs may want to look for the small statute of Old Abe, the American bald eagle that accompanied the Eighth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment and served as mascot during more than 30 bloody Civil War battles. His likeness presides over the state Assembly Chamber.
Free tours of the State Capitol are offered on the hour 358 days per year. Report to the tour desk in the lobby of the Capitol a 2 E. Main St. or call 608-266-0382 for large group reservations. Self-guided tours also are allowed.