Engaging, Quaint, or Bat Sh*t Crazy: Heritage Tourism in South Dakota

This week I read a great post on History@Work (link below) reflecting on heritage tourism.  Joe Watkins (Chief, Tribal Relations and American Cultures, National Park Service, WASO) writes about how heritage tourism has been impacted by technology, by tentative inclusiveness, and by its own profitability since 1991.  It made me think about heritage tourism in South Dakota, and how there is such a wide range between historically-accurate, informative, and engaging sites; the cluttered attic-like sites that are good for quaint nostalgia, and the… um, scarier sites that can be downright dangerous.


I still have a mile-long to-do list for visiting historic sites in South Dakota, especially West River, but here are observations from my regrettably limited experience… I really have to get on the road this summer…

First, legit museums: Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, the Old Courthouse Museum & Pettigrew House in Sioux Falls, the Journey Museum in Rapid City, and the National Music Museum in Vermillion are fantastic.  Historically-informed rotating content, good story-telling, attractive exhibit design, interactive, multimedia wonderfulness augmented with strong collections, education, and program departments…  The Deadwood History museums are up there on my to-do list.  And there are smaller museums that are doing it right: I really got a lot out of the history & art presented at the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain.  And in speaking of art, I’ll mention here the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls and the Red Cloud Heritage Center in Pine Ridge.

Several cities have also put a lot of work into walking tours and interpretive signs around town, even using smart phone QR codes to put accurate history out in the street where its accessible and tied to the physical world around the viewer.

There are a TON of relatively-interchangeable county museums and historical societies around the state (and around the country).  They have a lot of collections, and the space is one permanent exhibit that fits in as many objects into the space as possible while leaving just enough room to walk.  The typical extent of their interpretation is a donor card typed on a typewriter and arranging the stuff by theme.  And the themes are military, agriculture, education, domestic life, religion, clubs, fraternal orders, European immigrants…  They’re nice folks and they provide a place for locals to bring their grandmothers’ quilts, but as museum, a visit is pretty static.  If you go, I would recommend drawing the volunteer at the desk into conversation – their stories are likely going to be the best part.  Here or there, one might take you hostage with a hour or two of diatribe, but I think it’s worth the risk if you have a flexible schedule.  And these museums can be great resources, like the museum in Freeman which is partnering with a local retail business to put up a small display there on the history of the former bank–a great way for shoppers to pick up some history and for the museum to increase its visibility.

House museums… they can be wonderful. They can be an immersion into the past, a chance to see wonderful architecture and craftsmanship up close, a prompt to think critically about the changes that have occurred through time, and model the importance of conserving historic places. But too often, a visit consists of looking at rich white people’s stuff and then leaving. House museums in smaller towns are difficult too, because they never seem to be open… In any case, they’re a nationwide problem for many reasons: http://publichistorycommons.org/resource-or-burden/  Some are great, some are not. Most could be better.

Then there are the scary places. The Ye Old West kitsch. They would be innocuous if just kitsch–if they were just gift shops with a few mannequins in old clothes, but too many are dangerous because they feed stereotypes of colonialism, racism, and sexism. They trap tourists with over-simplified bullshit and send them on their way believing that this is the state’s heritage. Not to say that Eurocentrist prejudice doesn’t linger in many institutions, but these places make the shameful oppressions in our past into a nauseating photo op…  Heritage consumers, be cautious, be informed, and be selective.

All that to say thank you to Joe Watkins and History@Work for a post that prompted critical reflection on my state and our current options for heritage tourism.


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