WMU News

Exhibit to explore French, Native American relations

July 13, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- While many people visit museums during the summer, 11 Western Michigan University students spent part of their summer planning an exhibit for a museum.

As participants in WMU's 2001 Public History Field School held during May and June, the students spent seven weeks researching and developing a proposal for a museum exhibit that will examine the interactions of Native Americans and the French during the 17th and 18th centuries.

According to Ken Pott, executive director of the Fort Miami Heritage Society, which commissioned the project, the exhibit, titled "Shared Waters: Natives and French Newcomers on the Great Lakes," will open in May 2002 at the Priscilla U. Byrns Heritage Center in St. Joseph, Mich.

The exhibition will explore the influence that French and native peoples in the Great Lakes region had on one another's culture, with an emphasis on those interactions that occurred in Southwest Michigan. The French established two forts in the region, both along the St. Joseph River. The first, Fort Miami, was established in 1679 in the St. Joseph area, while Fort St. Joseph was founded a decade later at a site in what is now Niles, Mich.

"The exhibit will look at how the fur trade and marine environment influenced settlement patterns and cultural exchange of both the French and the Native Americans at the time," Pott says. "It will show how the forts were linked to one another and ultimately back to France. The French and the Native Americans both had extensive networks that were connected throughout the waterways of the Great Lakes system."

After receiving a grant to develop the exhibit from the Michigan Coastal Zone Management Program, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fort Miami Heritage Society approached WMU history faculty members Drs. Jose A. Brandao, Michael J. Chiarappa and Kristin M. Szylvian, for assistance. Szylvian says they seized the opportunity to involve students and made developing a proposal for the exhibit the focus of the field school.

The students, accompanied by the Brandao, Chiarappa, Szylvian and Pott, began their work by visiting Canadian museums with established collections of French and Native American artifacts. The team drove 1,809 miles in eight days, visiting several museums, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian National Archives in Ottawa, the McCord Museum in Montreal, and Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Ontario.

Szylvian describes the reception the team received from the museums as "unbelievable."

"We met with the foremost curators and anthropologists in Canada who took the time to work with us," she says. "They let us look at their artifacts and collections and truly gave us the red-carpet treatment. Our students were given unequaled exposure to the collection management and museum administration involved in public history."

Clay Johnson, a WMU doctoral student in history who hopes to work in museum management, says the experience gave him "a very rare and unique perspective." He and another student took more than 1,500 digital images documenting artifacts and other aspects of the trip. The images were pivotal in helping the students determine which artifacts should be included in the exhibit. Once completed, the students presented their proposal to the society's exhibition committee.

"The proposal really refined the process of developing the exhibit," says Pott. "The students brought a lot of information together in one place and in one presentation. They outlined the interpretative aspects of the exhibit as well as the collections that would be used and the thematic content. It will be a very public-oriented exhibit with great educational programs."

The exhibit is scheduled to run for two years at the Byrns Heritage Center and will feature two changing components. The first year, part of the exhibit will explore the archaeology of the La Belle and Fort St. Louis sites in Texas and will feature artifacts from a French ship from the La Belle site that sank in 1686. That portion of the exhibit will change in the second year to feature information and artifacts from the Fort St. Joseph site in Niles, where WMU anthropologists and students have been conducting an archaeological excavation.

The "Shared Waters" exhibition is now in the design stage under the direction of Project Arts and Ideas of Dearborn, Mich. Brandao, Chiarappa and Szylvian continue their involvement as participants on the society's exhibition committee.

"The WMU field school was very important in this process," Pott says. "It paved the way by engaging and opening doors at the Canadian institutions. I know that Western's involvement increased the appreciation of those Canadian institutions for our efforts and is making this exhibit become a reality."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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