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Real or Replica?: How Old World Wisconsin Preserves Wisconsin History Through Its Artifacts

Eleanor Peterson, WUWM

History is increasingly becoming accessible to users online. 

Newspapers and books are digitized, historic census records are easy to navigate and search through, and images and video of historic artifacts can be viewed online.

But we cannot experience living in the past while sitting in front of our computers.

Old World Wisconsin, sponsored by the Wisconsin Historical Society, is known for its living museum. Crops are grown there, livestock is raised there, and historic, primitive buildings from around the state have found a home there.

Jennifer Van Haaften, the Associate Director of Programs and Historical Resources, says there are benefits of experiencing a living history museum that the traditional museum cannot offer.

"Maybe you see something at your local historical society or you have seen an interesting spinning wheel over at the Milwaukee Public Museum, but that's behind a window or a glass," says Van Haaften. "You're like 'How does that work?' and we are lucky enough that we can demonstrate how it works and say 'Hey! Come try it out for yourself!'"

But a lot of detailed considerations come with operating a living history museum. While traditional museums have many original artifacts displayed behind glass, they do not need to worry about public handling the objects or the natural elements coming into contact with the artifacts.

Old World Wisconsin has to evaluate each object to determine its durability. Can be outside? Can it be handled? Does a replica need to be made? Van Haaften explains the evaluation process and tells us about what it takes to operate a living history museum. 

Want to discover what it was like for a Civil War enlistee? Read about the events held at Old World Wisconsin this month including, "Gone for a Soldier."