Hiding the horrors of history?
MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — A beam that newspapers from 1881 and 1927 describe as part of the gallows used in executing 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato has for decades been stored away.
The director of the Blue Earth County Historical Society said she doesn't intend to display it as the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War is marked this summer.
"We are not trying to hide it. We just don't have the physical capacity to display it," Jessica Potter told The Free Press (http://bit.ly/xpOmUI).
She said they also don't have a "solid research base to have it on display," and said the object would bring strong emotions.
"We have 24,000 objects and we can't have them all on display in a 3,000-foot museum. And it's an object that does not have interpretation with it that will be positive to everyone who sees it. We have to be sensitive to that."
Potter said the authenticity of the timber hasn't been verified. But there are newspaper articles that describe the whereabouts of the timber soon after the war.
The timber came from prominent Mankato businessman and Civil War Home Guard Cmdr. John F. Meagher. He reportedly bought the timber in an auction held by the Army soon after the hangings and used it as a beam in his hardware store. After a later fire in the building, Meagher shipped the beam by train to the University of Minnesota.
In the Nov. 24, 1881, issue of the University of Minnesota newspaper, the Ariel, a story told of Meagher giving the timber to the university's museum.
Meagher sent a letter to the university that said in part: "It is a rather hard looking relic and you may be disappointed when you see it, but I can assure you it did the business and completely civilized the Sioux Indians ... "The notches around one side of this were to accommodate the ropes ..." Meagher's letter said.
The timber was held by the university until 1927 when it was turned over to the Blue Earth County Historical Society as described in a Dec. 24, 1927, Free Press story. The controversy over which historic objects to display has come to the forefront with the sensitive nature of the war and the nation's largest mass execution in Mankato.
The state Historical Society has the noose used to hang Chief Chaska in storage and said it does not plan to put it on public view when it opens an exhibit on the war, saying they don't want it to become "the noose exhibit."
For Darla Gebhardt, a research archivist and librarian at the Brown County Historical Society, keeping compelling history out of reach of the public goes against the very nature of historical societies' obligations.
"Personally, I know that any artifact here, that anyone could come in and view it. Even if it's not on display, we certainly take it out," Gebhardt said.
"That's just freedom of information. You hold artifacts in trust for the public and the public should be able to view them — not just some people can see them and some cannot."
Gebhardt, whose great-grandfather defended New Ulm from Dakota attacks in August 1862, said objects such as the noose or remnants of the gallows may be painful for some but are part of the historical story.
"I'd certainly like to see Chaska's noose on exhibit because I think it would be a very personal, powerful experience to see it. While it's painful for some, history is sometimes powerful and painful."
She said it is similar to people seeing the shoes or other personal items of Holocaust victims that are on display in the national Holocaust Museum.
Potter said some people are allowed to view objects in storage, if they have a reason to.
"You have to give us a reason why you want to see an object in our closed collection — people who are doing research on a topic. Then it goes before a collections committee to decide if it has merit," Potter said.
She said the process is needed because of the time it can take to locate and show someone objects that are in storage.
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.