Refreshing exhibit to better represent our history

Courtesy Photo Gene Jenneman and Robert Haltiner set the “Peoples of Lakes and Forests” exhibit in 1971. The museum is planning a new “Discover Northeast Michigan History” exhibit.

ALPENA — A 51-year-old exhibit at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan will receive a major facelift to make it more fun, family-friendly and interactive, while accurately portraying Northeast Michigan history.

The 3,000-square-foot Native American exhibit was originally set in 1971.

The Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan Board of Trustees recently voted to approve a multi-phase capital improvement project to transform the space into an exciting 21st-century exhibit experience.

“The new ‘Discover Northeast Michigan History’ exhibit will chronicle 11 time periods celebrating our community’s unique heritage,” Museum Executive Director Christine Witulski said in a press release. “The renovation will take approximately two years to complete.”

In an interview this week, she said the timeframe for completion will depend on the funding raised. The estimated cost of the project is $1.5 million, she added.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley In the current Native American exhibit at Besser Museum, the late Edith Bondie is featured and her intricate baskets are on display.

Witulski said the Native American exhibit needs to be updated to better reflect the cultural heritage of our community.

For that reason, the museum has been consulting with a variety of tribal members across the state to determine what should and should not be included in the updated Native American exhibit.

“The museum will be working with Cornerstone Architects to redesign the space to support the varied exhibits planned for the new history gallery,” she said in the press release.

Cornerstone’s work includes the River of History Museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Dennos Museum in Traverse City, and the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.

“It will be designed for multiple levels of engagement, from our littlest learners to lifelong learners,” Witulski said. “This fun, family-friendly exhibit will foster a deeper understanding and appreciation for the interconnection of our region’s natural resources and historic events that shaped our community.”

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Above is the entrance to the current Native American exhibit, called “People of Lakes and Forests.”

The Besser Museum will be seeking grant funding along with private donations to be matched with available funds from the Robert and Jacquelyn Granum Endowment Fund managed by the Community Foundation of Northeast Michigan.

Witulski explained that the Besser Museum acquired a private collection of indigenous artifacts from Gerald and Robert Haltiner in 1971. This immense collection formed the “Peoples of the Lakes and Forest” exhibit, which was created by Robert Haltiner in the early 1970s, and has remained unchanged for the past 51 years. The “Discover Northeast Michigan History” exhibit will transform the current gallery space into a multi-themed exhibit providing accurate historical interpretation in an interactive, immersive media presentation relevant to contemporary audiences of all ages.

In 2014, Witulski met with Eric Hemenway, Director of Archives for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians in Northern Michigan, to discuss the museum’s goal to reinterpret the gallery from the Anishinaabe perspective. Then in 2016, the George and Edith Cook Family Museum Fund was established at the CFNEM to assist the museum with revitalizing the “Peoples of Lakes and Forests” exhibit. Funds were used to hire local genealogist Matt McCormack to conduct research on the ancestry of indigenous families of Northeast Michigan. He specifically focused on the family of Edith Bondie, a well-known Native American basket weaver from Hubbard Lake.

The George and Edith Cook Fund additionally provided funding to hire consultants Charlee Brissett, Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians; Colleen Medicine, Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians; and Hemenway. Over the course of this project, the Besser Museum also consulted with Frank Ettawageshik, Executive Director, United Tribes of Michigan, Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians; William Johnson, Ziibiwing Center of Anishinaabe Culture and Lifeways, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; Jonnie J. Sam, Tribal Historic Preservation, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians; David Joseph (Edith Bondie’s nephew), Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; and Albert LaBlance, Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The reinterpreted Anishinaabe exhibit will be a prominent feature in the new “Discover Northeast Michigan History” exhibit.

The museum will be working with Alpena Community College, Alpena Public Schools, Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Thunder Bay River Center, and AMA-ESD Great Start Collaborative. In addition, the museum is working with a group of retired Alpena Public School teachers to provide input and guidance on curriculum connections in Social Studies and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The museum also welcomes input from local residents who can contribute historical content or would like to help fund this unique representation of our community.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan Executive Director Christine Witulski sits in the current Native American exhibit at Besser Museum.

Stages planned for the “Discover Northeast Michigan History” exhibit include:

1) “The Formation of the Universe: Our place within the Milky Way Galaxy.” The exhibit will introduce basic astronomy information providing an understanding of our place in time and space. Visitors will be encouraged to visit the Besser Museum planetarium to learn more about the universe and visit the three area dark sky parks for stargazing.

2) “The Formation of Earth: Third Rock from the Sun.” The exhibit will include the forces that shaped the planet, the geological timeline, the fossil record of the region, geological features unique to the area, such as the sinkholes, and the planet’s natural resources used for industry, along with the museum’s collection of minerals. Visitors will be encouraged to visit the Fossil Park and Rockport State Recreation Area.

3) “The Ice Ages: Formation of the Great Lakes.” The exhibit will feature the five different Ice Ages, the formation of the Great Lakes, the different lake levels over time, the aquatic species, both native and invasive, and how they inhabited the lakes. The exhibit will touch on water transportation and shipwrecks, encouraging visitors to visit Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

4) “The Thunder Bay River.” The flora and fauna of the Thunder Bay River played a significant role in the early history of indigenous peoples. The Thunder Bay River is the boundary of two major treaties. Once teeming with sturgeon and other species of fish, the Thunder Bay River was forever changed by the Timber Boom and installation of dams. Before dams, the Thunder Bay rivaled the whitewater rapids of the west. Visitors will be encouraged to tour the Duck Park and Rotary Park to learn more about the history of these areas.

5) “The First Peoples: Northeast Michigan Native American Tribes.” The Besser Museum has been working with tribal consultants for the past several years to revitalize the narrative of the museum’s Native American exhibit. This section of the exhibit will focus on indigenous peoples, past and present. The exhibit will also feature stories of Northeast Michigan Native American families, such as Edith Bondie, whose family lived in the Hubbard Lake area for centuries.

6) “French Fur Traders — European Contact (1600s).” This section in the exhibit timeline will include historical objects and information about the French fur traders. Learn when, why, and where traders set up camps and trapped for furs.

7) “The Declaration of Independence, Michigan Statehood, Indian Treaties: 1700 to 1800s.” This section will span over 100 years of America’s history to give museum visitors an understanding of how the western expansion and the Timber Boom eventually impacted the Thunder Bay region.

8) “The Timber Boom.” This section will expand upon the museum’s current exhibit. The new exhibit will include more information on once-thriving timber communities, information about tree species, where the timber went, and what it was used for.

9) “A Growing Community.” This section will highlight businesses and institutions that sprung up during the lumbering and fishing industries eras helping to sustain and grow the livelihoods of citizens within the growing communities of the area. Visitors will be directed to visit the museum’s existing “Avenue of Shops,” “Historic Village,” and “Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage” exhibit. Visitors will also be encouraged to do the walking tour of Alpena’s historic buildings.

10) “Farming Families.” This section will focus on the early families who established farms throughout the region; what crops they grew, which succeeded, and which failed, such as tobacco. The museum will incorporate its historic collection of farming tools and historic photos for interpretation.

11) “The Industrial Revolution.” This section will cover the 20th century up to the present. It will feature the history of the cement plant, Fletcher Paper Co., Alpena Motor Company, Besser Co., DPI, Panel Processing, Thunder Bay Manufacturing, W.G. Benjy Manufacturing, Omni, and others. The exhibit will also highlight the community’s amenities such as Alpena Community College, MyMichigan Medical Center and Cancer Center, along with other local businesses and attractions the community proudly promotes.


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