With support from the Caxambas Foundation, the Material Culture Program sponsored three undergraduate service learning opportunities this summer. Each student partnered with a local historical society in Wisconsin to help them digitize and share their collections through Wisconsin Heritage Online, a statewide digitization program. Our final report comes from History major Katie Dreps. The objects she describes will be available online this fall.
Over the summer, I have been working with the McFarland Historical Society to turn a portion of their collection of Norwegian artifacts, assembled by local resident Albert Skare, into an online resource. Skare, who’s parents emigrated from Norway to McFarland in the 1850s, began collecting traditional Norwegian objects sometime in the early 20th century. His extensive collection includes farm implements, household and kitchen objects, and trunks and furniture, most dating from the 19th century or earlier. Skare originally displayed in several buildings on his Hidden Valley Farm outside of McFarland, including several cabins constructed by early settlers. According to information collected by the McFarland Historical Society, the artifacts were specially displayed for viewing at family reunions as early as the 1930s and 1940s. Shortly after Albert Skare’s death, his niece Margaret Greene Kennedy donated his entire collection to the McFarland Historical Society in 1969.
I was particularly interested in working with the McFarland Historical Society when I heard about their collection of Norwegian artifacts. My grandmother grew up on a farm outside of Lodi, Wisconsin, the granddaughter of Norwegian immigrants. And while my Norwegian heritage is relatively easy to trace, before this summer, my knowledge of Norway involved only vague notions of fjords and the smell of lutefisk. This internship has been (and continues to be) a great opportunity for me to connect with my Norwegian heritage in a direct way.
As a history major with little prior experience working with artifacts, I began the process of creating a digital collection with some apprehension. But with much
help and encouragement early on in the summer from Wisconsin Heritage Online Outreach Specialist Emily Pfotenhauer, I began to familiarize myself with Albert Skare’s collection of artifacts, and learn the professional methods of archiving a digital collection. In June Emily and I spent a whole day in McFarland photographing a portion of Skare’s collection. As Emily photographed, I closely examined each object, recording measurements, catalog numbers, and details like paint colors, cracks, and evidence of repairs. Much of my work for the summer has been transforming the notes I took that day into the organized information required for a digital collection. Eventually, these photographs and notes (and notes from subsequent visits) will form the base for the digital collection.
In addition to cataloging each artifact in the database, and editing the photographs for color adjustment and to bring out detail, I have been researching to create informative descriptions for each object. It has been difficult to trace the ownership history of specific objects. While some objects are marked with a date and even with initials, it is very difficult to say who owned them, or when they came into Albert Skare’s possession. Rather, I have been focusing on researching the techniques used to create the objects, like bentwood boxes or turned bowls. Some of the techniques used to create artifacts in the collection date all the way back to medieval times in Norway! Understanding the traditional techniques used to make these objects has deepened my appreciation for their forms, and my research on the immigrant experience has deepened my appreciation for the fact that these objects even exist for us to view. Specially selected for travel across the Atlantic, many of these objects were an important part of settlers’ early days in Wisconsin. I imagine my own ancestors packing trunks with similar household goods,
preparing for a new life. I hope that the descriptions will facilitate a more thoughtful experience for those who view the collection online, and maybe help others connect with their own immigrant heritage.
I am thankful for the help of Emily Pfortenhauer, who in addition to walking me through the basics of artifact photography and photo editing, has pointed me towards helpful sources on material culture and provided a sounding board for ideas. Dale Marsden, president of this McFarland Historical Society, has been incredibly helpful, accommodating my hectic schedule and answering my questions about McFarland. I can’t forget to mention the rest of the gang at the McFarland Historical Society, including Gini and Ginny, Wes, Mary and Jackie! We’ve got some coordinating community activities in the works for the launch of the digital collection, including a special display at the library of objects featured online. I hope that this is only the beginning, and that the digital collection continues to grow, deepening McFarland’s connection to their history, increasing the appreciation of Norwegian folk art and handicrafts, and inspiring new interest in discovering the past.