The Brown County Historical Society is located in New Ulm, Minn., in the beautiful Minnesota River valley. The society has existed since 1930 and has a membership of 497 individuals and families. It attracts approximately 7,000 visitors each year.
In our region of Minnesota, connections to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath linger in the written and oral histories passed down to the descendants of settlers who went through that pivotal event in Minnesota’s history. Our museum’s exhibits and collections house artifacts that represent this period of Brown County’s history. The art displayed in our galleries provides cultural connections similar to those experienced in the Minnesota State Capitol. Accessible art provides a view of history that can be complemented by signage and related objects. It educates through the artist’s view of past events.
It is the hope of the Brown County Historical Society, its membership and Board of Trustees that the art currently under review for possible removal remain on exhibit in the State Capitol. This board is particularly concerned with works such as “The First Battle of New Ulm” by Anton Gag and the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux” by Francis Millet. Careful research has proven that these pieces of art were created with great care to detail and accurately depict the events portrayed.
Removing artworks because they are disturbing to some viewers or depict violence is a form of censorship that impinges on the First Amendment rights of the artists and also those who wish to view the art.
This board also finds it very disturbing that the Art Subcommittee of the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission declined repeated requests to hold public meetings in the Brown, Redwood and Renville county areas, where large numbers of descendants from both sides of the Dakota War still live. Input from people whose ancestors were directly involved in events depicted in the art in question should have been eagerly sought out by the committee, not avoided.
Allowing continued public access and viewing is always a challenge. We urge the Capitol Preservation Commission and its Art Subcommittee to increase the public’s educational access, ease of viewing and balanced interpretation of these art pieces as the state readies itself for the Capitol’s rededication in 2017.
Art can be a compelling tool to help educate and provide understanding of where we are as a culture today. Artwork of the past, including canvas creations with accurate and balanced narratives such as the Capitol pieces, can make powerful statements sometimes offering the only glimpse possible of significant events in our state’s early history.
Anne Earl is president and Bob Burgess is director of the Brown County Historical Society.