Friday, 17 October 2014




For those of you who know me for my proud Midwestern heritage (and for my previous Object of the Week post on butter sculptures), you know well already that I am a lifelong fan of the Minnesota State Fair. To set the stage for those who haven’t yet heard me sing the praises of the Fair, visualize a 12-day festival spread out across several city blocks that brings together agriculture, crafts, music, farm animals, Garrison Keillor, rides, politicians, dairy products, and, of course, fried foods galore -- all proudly Minnesotan. And there you have it: the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

The entrance to the Minnesota State Fair. Photo Credit: Alfred Hannemann
So you may imagine my delight when my travels this summer not only brought me to Minnesota to attend the Fair, but also corresponded with the opening of the State Fair History and Heritage Center. A heritage center based on a cultural institution that I already love, developed by the ever-innovative Minnesota Historical Society and supplied with artifacts from the Minnesota State Fair Foundation? What could be more delightful? 

The History & Heritage Center at the Minnesota State Fair. Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann
Aside from my unabashed child-like glee at this hybrid of two of my favourite institutions, from an objective standpoint I think that there can be a lot to learn from the methods, practices of display, and goals of the State Fair History and Heritage Center.

First, the History and Heritage Center provides a wonderful opportunity for fair-goers to explore an institution that they already attend and love -- but whose deeper knowledge of it just barely scratches the surface (which was certainly my case). Often one’s experience of the Fair can be pre-occupied with devouring the latest and most outrageous food trend or seeing the big-name headliner at the Grandstand. But to me, what makes that classic State Fair milkshake taste even sweeter is seeing its connection to the past, with photographs of similarly eager Dairy Building visitors in 1949 or the vintage milkshake machine that cranked out those frosty beverages in State Fairs past. The heritage center takes what we already love and shows us its origins, its connections to the state’s history, and others like us who enjoyed it in the past.

Frosty goodness: the Milkshake Machine at the Heritage Center. Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann
The State Fair History and Heritage Center also takes a balanced and unique approach to presenting information and artifacts. The rotating text panel set-up allows for oodles of State Fair factoids -- without overwhelming visitors with massive amounts of text. These text panels also move to create larger images, like a puzzle, which creates interactive displays in a very analog way. 

Manually-rotating text panels at the Heritage Center. Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann
Text panels can rotate to create a bigger image. Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann
The building design itself is the perfect invitation for visitors to step in out of the hot August sun and explore the Fair’s past, with rows of open doors on either side of the triangular-shaped exhibit space. Of course this is not a viable option for year-round museums, but the design provides food for thought on how visitor and heritage centres within parks or public spaces could invite casual visitors walking by. This also created a multi-sensory museum experience -- the warm summer air wafted in, along with the smell of fried chicken and waffles from the food stand next door!

And as a permanent exhibit to be featured at the Fair in years to come, the exhibit developers welcomed and encouraged feedback from visitors to add their voices and opinions on the exhibit. The comment forms asked visitors, “What would you like to see added?” “What is your favorite fair memory and why?” and “For you, what is the importance of the new State Fair History & Heritage Center?” Along with the comment forms, the exhibit featured -- get this -- a real live curator and historian present to interact with visitors! My family obviously abandoned me because I spent too much time talking to the museum professional. 

Comment book at the Heritage Center. (I believe I was the only visitor taking a photo of the comment book.) Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann

Above all, the History and Heritage Center was consistently packed with enthusiastic fair-goers interested in learning more about the Fair’s 150-year lifetime. I was certainly not the only one devouring all the offerings of the center like a delicious chocolatey milkshake. Kudos to the Fair Foundation and the Minnesota Historical Society for seizing an opportunity to share history and heritage with thousands of willing pupils.

An engaged visitor at the Heritage Center. Photo Credit: Katherine Hannemann

1 comment:

  1. Katherine, you had me at "milk" :) I am so happy that you are reflecting on smaller and less obvious museums, which are, in a way, much more connected with the fabric of the local communities in a specific area. Sometimes, as you show here, the simplest opportunities for engagement come in tangible form and allow visitors a direct connection with histories and objects. Thank you for sharing this with us!