Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Milwaukee Public Museum

Heavy rains last night and some later in the day, and even better, it was warm for a few hours today. Better than last Saturday in Milwaukee, when it wasn't pleasant enough for an outdoor romp. So we did an indoor romp at the Milwaukee Public Museum. We made the acquaintance of this creature while we were there.

It's the Herbior Mammoth, discovered in southern Wisconsin in 1994 and acquired by the museum in 2007. Imagine being in the vicinity of such a beast, more than two stories tall and sporting those wicked-looking tusks, while you are armed with a stone spear and maybe a stone knife or two, and you have no horses. Of course, you're with the rest of the hunters in your clan, but still. The mammoth will be angry when you start poking it with your sticks.

According to the museum, the mammoth died about 14,500 years ago -- and has evidence of being butchered. So people ended up eating the thing, whether they hunted it or scavenged it, which is less dramatic but also possible. I prefer to imagine paleo-Indians poking it with sharp sticks; that would have been quite an achievement. More importantly for paleoanthropologists, the bones are older than the Clovis site, and thus among the oldest evidence of human habitation in North America. Cool.

Elsewhere in the museum was the big-ticket exhibit, "Mummies of the World," which apparently displays dried dead people not only from Egypt and Peru, but also lesser-known mummification spots, such as "part of a group of 18th-century mummies discovered in a long-forgotten church crypt in Vác, Hungary," says the press release associated with the show. Imagine that discovery: "Say, Béla, what's in stone box over there?" "Dunno, let's find out."

Interesting, but I didn't want to shell out for it. Instead we wandered through the halls of the museum, looking at whatever caught our interest. Much of the place is given over to re-creations of one kind or another, such as Old Milwaukee, which features storefronts with large windows, inside which are various artifacts of old-time businesses. My own favorite item in that part of the museum was a poster at the late 19th-century drug store advertising Paine's Celebrated Green Mountain Balm of Gilead Cedar Plaster, which you can see here (with the wry note, "Advertisements often depicted the natural sources of proprietary medicines rather than the factories in which they were bottled.").

The Milwaukee Public Museum is also fond of traditional, full-sized dioramas: nature scenes, scenes featuring Indians, scenes depicting far-away cultures. One diorama has fish and other sea creatures hanging by strings from the ceiling, with a watery background, which is something I'd never seen before. I have to like a museum that's hanging onto its dioramas in our time, when digital imaging is state-of-the-art in simulation. But until we get holodecks, even computer-generated 3D imaging isn't quite going to replace the diorama.

Not all dioramas are in museums. Such as this odd contest I'd never heard of before: the Pioneer Press Marshmallow Peeps Diorama and Video Contest.

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