Interesting Things in a Dull Landscape

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June 24th 2011
Published: March 18th 2012
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Nebraska StatehouseNebraska StatehouseNebraska Statehouse

The statue at the top is a figure sowing grain.
I woke up today in Lincoln Nebraska.

The capitol of the state and home of the University of Nebraska, it was not high on my initial itinerary.

I stopped here because I needed a place to sleep.

Now that I am here, I might as well find things to see.

The first item every guide book mentions is the Nebraska state house.

One look at the building and the reason is obvious.

The building is a combination of Classical and Art Deco design elements.

It consists of a narrow central shaft flanked by two wings.

The central section has a small dome on top.

The remarkable similarity between this building and a particular part of human anatomy has been noted since the building was completed, and R rated jokes based on that similarity have been around nearly as long.

My guide book even mentions some of them.

I suspect everyone involved, including the state government, is pretty embarrassed by this point.

Center for Great Plains Studies

With that out of the way, it’s time for more serious stuff.

I found it at the University of
Nebraska Pioneers sculptureNebraska Pioneers sculptureNebraska Pioneers sculpture

Nebraska Pioneers sculpture, outside the Center for Great Plains Studies.

The university has an institute called the Center for Great Plains Studies.

It focuses on the history and culture of the Great Plains states, including Nebraska.

What makes it interesting for me is that they have an art gallery of regional artists.

Most of the work is modern versions of American scene regionalism (see Having an Art Attack), with lots of focus on landscape.

They also had a number of sculptures of Native Americans and pioneers.

The gallery was worth a short visit.

Sheldon Museum of Art

The university shows more art at the Sheldon Museum of Art on campus.

The building itself is worth a visit.

It was designed by famous architect Phillip Johnson in 1963.

It has a central lobby consisting of tall columns leading into semi-circular forms on the ceiling.

Round yellow circles are suspended from the semi-circles.

The galleries are arranged in rooms around the lobby.

Personally, I felt the building looked like a 1950s mall department store, since many used a similar style.

(For what it’s worth, Phillip Johnson also designed the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, New York, which I also thought looked like a mall department store).

The permanent collection is arranged
Sheldon Museum of ArtSheldon Museum of ArtSheldon Museum of Art

The Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, designed by Phillip Johnson

The museum has definitely bought into post-modern curation (see There is no Party Like an Art Party), and the art was arranged accordingly.

Unfortunately, most of it showed the style at its cheesy worst.

One of the bigger current debates in art theory consists of how to show art by women and minorities relative to the “dead white males” that comprise most of the traditional art cannon.

The best shows try to show how art by these groups fits within the larger art history context, such as the “50 Americans” show at the North Carolina Museum of Art (see The Future is Now).

These shows, by contract, had the feel of “Look! Non-white men can make art!”

The works was all over the place, with widely varying subjects and quality.

I enjoyed a number of abstract paintings, such as one by Alvin Loving, but they had no relation to the ethnic background of the artists.

This is the type of show for which people disparage academic museums.

Nebraska History Museum

My last site for today was the Nebraska History Museum.

For a state often disparaged as being dull, Nebraska has a complicated history which is documented in the museum.

Sheldon Museum lobbySheldon Museum lobbySheldon Museum lobby

A portion of the central lobby of the Sheldon Museum (the photo is oddly composed to exclude the artwork in the lobby)
first part, and the largest, deals with Native Americans.

Nebraska was a crossroads of several Indian cultures.

Tribes fought over territory, displaced groups along resources like rivers, and were often displaced in turn.

The most important group was the Sioux, nomadic hunters who pushed into the area from Minnesota.

They eventually acquired horses from the Spanish, and became highly adept riders.

Sioux dominated the state by the time American settlers arrived, starting in the early 1800s.

After this point, things followed a by now typical pattern.

First, people mostly traded.

Then, the government signed a bunch of treaties.

Finally, settlers and the government broke most of them and pushed tribes onto smaller and smaller pieces of land.

The lowlight has to be the Great Sioux War, which pitted the US Army against multiple tribes across the northern plains for a decade in the 1880s.

Several smaller tribes were exiled to Oklahoma.

I was struck by the parallels between these narratives and those in the Cherokee Museum (see The Majesty of Trees) from fifty years earlier.

The more things change…

The displays contain a large
Lakota HeadressLakota HeadressLakota Headress

The symbol of the plains native americans for many, and ALL native americans for some, this one is authentic to the Lakota.
range of artifacts.

They have the usual arrowheads, pottery, and other ancient artifacts, along with saddles, shirts and headdresses.

The museum has artifacts from important leaders, including chiefs Sitting Bull and Red Cloud.

Unlike the Cherokee Museum, the displays have only a little on religion and myths.

The next section discusses the process of statehood.

It all began with merchants from Cedar Rapids Iowa.

This town on the Missouri River was a supply point for migrants heading further west.

Some of the merchants crossed the river and founded a settlement directly on the other bank in 1854.

They called it Omaha.

Omaha became another prosperous river town.

Civic leaders wanted to lure a railroad to their town, because they believed railroads would displace river traffic.

In particular, they heard that a transcontinental railroad was being planned, and they wanted it to run through their area.

Railroad investors demanded that the area have a territorial government, to mange settlement and (in the investors’ view) get the Native Americans out of the way.

Area politicians maneuvered to get Nebraska incorporated as a territory.

In the
Red Cloud memorabeliaRed Cloud memorabeliaRed Cloud memorabelia

Personal items that once belonged to chief Red Cloud.
decade before the Civil War, they stepped on a powder keg.

At the time, the national government was incorporating new territories in pairs, one slave and one free, to keep sectional balance.

This system was showing its limits.

For Nebraska and Kansas to the south, Congress created a new method called territorial determination in 1854.

The government of each territory would decide whether to allow slavery or not.

The predictable result was that northerners and southerners both poured into the new territories to swing the vote their way.

Slavery was unsuited to agriculture in Nebraska and the territory quickly banned it, but Kansas became a battlefield for years.

John Brown, famous for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, got his start in Kansas.

Nebraska was firmly on the Union side during the Civil War, and many people volunteered to fight.

After the war was over, settlers started trickling into Nebraska.

At first, many viewed the state the way most current visitors do, as a sea of grass to pass through to somewhere better.

The big breakthrough was the invention of an iron plow that could break the tough grassy soil
Civil War MemorbeliaCivil War MemorbeliaCivil War Memorbelia

Items owned by Nebraska soldiers in the Civil War
by John Deere.

Settlers then saw the state as a destination in its own right.

Farmers poured in.

They came from many different ethnic groups in Europe and other parts of the US.

The population grew enough that Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867.

The new immigrants quickly discovered a problem, water.

Nebraska has very wet years alternating with drought.

Farmers repeatedly had some very prosperous years and then were wiped out.

One agricultural crop crash was so severe it became known as the Depression of 1897.

The worst of all, of course, was the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

A new invention called the metal windmill well helped solve the problem by pumping water from underground.

The classic windmill spinning in endless prairie is still found across the state.

The other solution was to dam the Platte to create irrigation reservoirs, which was mostly done in the 1930s.

The next part of the museum is Nebraska history until World War II.

I found this part the least interesting, because it shares much in common with other states.

Nebraska began as a very rural, very agricultural state with many isolated communities.
John Deere plowsJohn Deere plowsJohn Deere plows

The invention that enabled farmers to settle Nebraska

Improvements in agriculture and communication eliminated the isolation and made farming more efficient.

The state started a fair to advertise farm products in 1868, which evolved into the current State Fair.

The state encouraged industry as a way to lessen the dependence on unstable agriculture returns.

The biggest impact was on cities like Omaha and Grand Island.

The displays have a number of items that have been made in Nebraska over the years.

The last part of the museum was a temporary show called “We the People”.

I found it the best part of the entire museum.

The show describes the evolution of citizenship in Nebraska over the years.

The show makes the point that who gets to participate in the political process is a changing definition, and it does not always increase in a straight line.

Women could not vote until 1925, and while African American participation was never illegal (like in the South) it was certainly discouraged at times.

The biggest debates in Nebraska were over immigrants and Catholics.

Both were viewed at different times as having loyalties to groups other
Nebraska windmillNebraska windmillNebraska windmill

The invention that finally created a predictable water supply. Thousands of them still cover the state.
than the United States.

Believe it or not, Nebraska had a Ku Klux Klan chapter for two decades which inflamed these sentiments.

The museum has displays of the leaflets they left places they viewed as uncooperative.

(“The Ku Klux Klan has paid you a social visit. Please do not make the next one a business call”).

While bombings and lynching were rare, they did happen.

The largest period of intolerance was probably World War I.

As noted above, Nebraska had many immigrants from central Europe.

During the war, many citizens looked on them with suspicion.

The state passed a law outlawing the use of the German language, and German social clubs.

Another law set up a “Citizens Defense Force” to look for disloyalty.

Many German-Americans ended up in jail.

The most famous was school teacher Robert Meyer who was arrested and tried for teaching a class in German in 1920.

His case went to the US Supreme Court after the war was over, and he was freed in 1923.

I enjoyed my time in Lincoln, but I wouldn’t want to live here.
Omaha merchant houseOmaha merchant houseOmaha merchant house

Recreated interior of the house of a prosperous merchant in the years leading up to statehood.

I’m seriously missing hills by this point, and I’ve been in the state exactly two days.

Things need to improve soon or I’ll go insane.

Additional photos below
Photos: 19, Displayed: 19


Early ArrowheadsEarly Arrowheads
Early Arrowheads

Arrowheads from the first inhabitants of Nebraska
Early PotteryEarly Pottery
Early Pottery

Pottery made by the earliest inhabitants of Nebraska
Pioneer TrailsPioneer Trails
Pioneer Trails

Routes of early European migrants across Nebraska, most heading somewhere else.
Fort AtkinsonFort Atkinson
Fort Atkinson

Artifacts from a US fort established to protect western settlers.
Early Farming ImplementsEarly Farming Implements
Early Farming Implements

How the first European settlers tried to make a living from the tough Nebraska soil
Omaha CharlieOmaha Charlie
Omaha Charlie

Artifacts from a now obscure competitor to Buffalo Bil Cody based in Nebraska.

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