Smithsonian Institute’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, “Water/Ways” lands in Lanesboro, Minnesota, January 7 through February 19, 2017. The exhibit showcases how water forges bonds more complex than ‘H’ to ‘O’.
By Kristine Jepsen
Water. It hauls 108M tons of freight annually within the banks of the Upper Mississippi River alone, makes up 84 percent of any Honeycrisp apple and carries every single molecule of metabolized carbs and protein to each cell in – you guessed it – your body.
But stats alone cannot tell the story of water’s universal importance to life, nor inspire anyone to take action to conserve it. Driving home the awareness that water is a resource we must respect, honor, and absolutely protect is at the heart of Smithsonian Institute’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, “Water/Ways.” Lanesboro, Minnesota was one of six locations in Minnesota that was chosen for this national exhibit. It is installed in Lanesboro January 7 through February 19, 2017, and there’s with a huge variety of corresponding events scheduled throughout town – from Lanesboro Arts Center openings to Commonweal Theatre plays to film sets to moonlight snowshoe hikes. (See below for full event details.)
Designed in collaboration with state humanities councils, the project weaves the science of water conservation together with individual experiences of the power and poetry of water. Lanesboro’s narrative will, naturally, feature the Root River and its impact in the development of the region, from its meaning to Native American tribes on through to the more recent life threatening flooding of 2007-08 and 2016.
“Rivers move. They’re alive. They have this flow to them that just is fascinating,” says John Weiss, outdoor reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin for nearly 40 years. Project technology coordinator and award-winning ethnographer Erin Dorbin recorded the interview with Weiss as they hiked along the Root River, one of several audio pieces produced for the exhibit.
“You gotta love water. You gotta protect water. You got to cherish water. But never, ever, ever trust water,” Weiss continued. “You got these two sides of it – the beauty and the beast. Moving water, as everybody knows, is dangerous. You have to respect it.”
Water/Ways was brought to the area by state sponsors like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a variety of local organizations – see sidebar for a full list. Credit for Lanesboro’s selection as a host location goes to Nancy North, who initiated the town’s application. She is principal at the Lanesboro-based communications and design firm, NewGround, specializing in environmental education and outreach. Partnering organizations have been planning the exhibit and related events since its announcement in June 2015.
Alongside Smithsonian’s Water/Ways is a companion exhibit specific to Minnesota, We Are Water. This interactive story-collecting showcase includes recordings from Minnesotans – including Lanesboro locals – who reflect on the meaning and experience of water. There are also opportunities for exhibit visitors to share their own stories and images. We Are Water MN connects visitors with ways to take action in water conservation, including in-depth resources for youth educators, regardless of whether they visit the exhibit in person. Visit mnhum.org/waterways for details.
The scientific side of the exhibit is spearheaded by Friends of the Root River, a non-profit advocacy coalition, and Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, which brought on a Minnesota GreenCorps staff member to train local docents for the Water/Ways exhibit. Friends of the Root River organized several Science Sunday public lectures in downtown Lanesboro, such as “Contaminants: What the Data Show” given by Terry Lee from the Olmsted County Water Quality Lab. The Eagle Bluff Center itself, located on the bluff northwest of town, will host candlelight snowshoe hikes, several themed dinners, and a family sled dog day.
“Talking about water strictly in the language of scientific research and conservation can get dense,” says Eagle Bluff fellowship coordinator Stephanie Davidson. What’s inspiring is that a lot of water quality sampling, especially in the Driftless Region, is done by citizen scientists, she says. An introduction to water sampling is offered year-round through Eagle Bluff’s “Stream Lab” unit for students grades 4-8. Adults and/or parents of children interested in office training can sign up with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: www.pca.state.mn.us/water/citizen-water-monitoring.
“Literally, grade-school students can be eyes and ears for streams in their backyards,” says Davidson. “You can collect valuable information on the pond you pass on your way to work. It’s one reason our watershed has some of the broadest and longest-standing water data in the state.”
Lanesboro’s installation of Water/Ways differs from other Smithsonian stops across the country – locations ranging from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Okeechobee, Florida – in that the exhibit’s home-base isn’t a science center or historical society, though both are integrally involved, says Adam Wiltgen, program director at Lanesboro Arts, a key collaborator.
Instead, viewers will find Water/Ways rooted in the historic St. Mane Theatre and Commonweal Theatre, both on Parkway Avenue, Lanesboro’s main drag. There, viewers will gather for educational events, film screenings, and musical productions. The resident Commonweal Theatre Company will present dramatic readings of locals’ most striking memories of water, as well as creative short plays, written and produced by Commonweal staff and alumni.
One script pushes the envelope on water scarcity, says Commonweal executive director Hal Cropp. In the future it imagines, a bottle of water appears in a museum exhibit – because it no longer exists as we know it.
St. Mane Theatre will also debut the work of student videographers Olivia Obritsch (grade 12), Jared Peterson (grade 7), Nora Sampson and Mai Gjere (grade 8), whose short documentaries on Lanesboro history and culture were funded by a nationally competitive Youth Access Technology Project grant. Just six communities received the award.
Dorbin, who directs graduate-level ethnographic programs for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, conducted four months of field training with the students. “We covered everything from interviewing skills to research and editing,” she explains. “At one point, their assignment was to approach people on Main Street and ask, ‘When was the last time water made you laugh?’”
The result, Dorbin says, is some of the best work she’s seen. “I have loved seeing their exploration of their environment and community and their growth as citizens, uncovering history and realizing that they are also creators of history and can influence local decision-making.”
Mai Gjere, who studied Lanesboro’s economic history and plans to attract young people in the future, put it this way: “Our community won’t get better with chance. It will get better with change,” she concluded in her documentary, citing the town’s need to supplement thriving eco- and arts tourism with professional employment in more sectors. “Hopefully, my generation will be the one to change it.”
Kristine Jepsen writes for magazines and the Web and enjoys grant writing for small businesses. She’s grateful for awesome educational resources, like Water/Ways, available in the Driftless – particularly as she embarks on homeschooling with her young daughter. Read more of her work at www.kristinejepsen.com.
The Lanesboro Water/Ways + We Are Water schedule is subject to change, so if you’re thinking of heading to one of the events listed here, please check mnhum.org/waterways/lanesboro for any updates.
January 7, 4-6 pm — “Currents of Change” – Visual Art and Historic Photograph Exhibit Opening Reception + Water Bar! Lanesboro Arts and the Lanesboro Museum at the at Lanesboro Arts Exhibition Gallery (Exhibit will run throughout the Water/Ways exhibition)
January 7 & 8 — “Ripples of Reflection” theatrical performance, Commonweal Theatre
January 8, 2 pm — Science Sunday, River Sojourn Film Screening with Sara and Ken Lubinksi, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
January 13, 7:30 pm — “Our Mighty Mississippi” with Steven Marking, baritone, St. Mane Theatre
January 14, 5 pm — Dinner on the Bluff, Protecting our Waters with Dr. Joshua Lallaman, Phd., Assistant Professor at SMUMN, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
January 15, 2 pm — Science Sunday, Wild Caving with Bill Brueck, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
January 21 – Giant bass snow sculpture will be created today! Downtown Lanesboro
January 21, 5 pm — Fish Fry, Lanesboro American Legion
January 21, 5-9 pm — Candlelight Snowshoe, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
January 22 — Science Sunday, Contaminants: What the Data Shows with Terry Lee from the Olmsted County Water Quality Lab, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
January 27, 6:30 pm — Grand Premiere Film Screenings: Youth Access Technology Project, Lanesboro Arts
January 28, 1 pm — Grand Premiere Film Screenings: Youth Access Technology Project, Lanesboro Arts
January 27-28 — Lanesboro Ice Bar, High Court Pub
January 29, 2 pm — Science Sunday, Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable? with Cathy Rofshus from the MN Pollution Control Agency, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
February 4, — Family Dog Sled Day, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
February 4, 5 pm — Dinner on the Bluff, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
February 5 — Science Sunday, Improving Water Quality with Land Conservation with Kevin Kuehner, Field to Stream Partnership, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
February 11, 4 pm — Chasing Niagara, Lanesboro Arts and the Frozen River Film Festival at the St. Mane Theatre
February 11, 7:30 pm — Aqua Adventure Film Set, Lanesboro Arts and the Frozen River Film Festival at the St. Mane Theatre
February 12, 2 pm — Science Sunday, Ironwood Landfill with Gary Peterson, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
February 16-18, 7:30 pm — “H20 Ten” eight 10-minute short plays about water, Commonweal Theatre Company
February 18, 5-9 pm — Candlelight Snowshoe, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
February 19, 2 pm — Science Sunday, Mysteries of the Driftless Film with Co-Producer George Howe, Friends of the Root River at the St. Mane Theatre
Contribute your story to Water/Ways or listen to oral histories collected in your area through Smithsonian’s app for smartphones.
Water/Ways and We Are Water are made possible by:
Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES)
US Environmental Protection Agency
National Endowment for the Humanities
Minnesota Humanities Center
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Minnesota Department of Health
Minnesota section of the American Water Works Association
Minnesota Public Radio
Commonweal Theatre Company
Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center
Friends of the Root River