For generations, University of Wisconsin–Madison students and staff have been committed to the “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” a commitment to understanding the world and using that knowledge to improve the lives of people in Wisconsin and beyond. But the university has never stood separate from the nation’s currents of exclusion, or from its struggles for equality. Now, the university community has an unprecedented opportunity to learn from its own histories of discrimination and resistance, to sift and reckon with our past. The UW–Madison Public History Project presents Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance to the public through a collaborative partnership with the Chazen Museum of Art. The UW–Madison Public History Project is a multiyear effort to uncover and give voice to these histories. In response to the increased awareness of the Ku Klux Klan’s presence on campus in the 1920s, Chancellor Rebecca Blank created the project to better understand our university’s past. The exhibition surveys over 150 years of history, using archival materials, objects, and oral histories to bring to light stories of struggle, perseverance, and resistance on campus.
The exhibition takes a thematic approach to understanding the university’s history, allowing visitors to see the multifaceted ways that racism and exclusion permeated campus life, and how the community responded, organized, and resisted. Themes such as student organizations, housing, academic life, and protest provide insight into the various experiences of marginalized students as they navigated the whole of student life. Visitors can engage with objects from the UW Archives that are rarely displayed, including the Pipe of Peace, a ceremonial object used by white students in a popular mock Native ceremony; protest flyers created by students fighting against racism; buttons and athletic memorabilia; and yearbooks and photographs illustrating the culture of exclusion on campus. Further, oral-history interviews with those who fought exclusion on campus allow visitors an intimate, firsthand accounting of the history of the university.
The exhibition includes interactive opportunities for visitors to reflect upon and discuss the complicated histories presented. In addition to the physical exhibition at the Chazen, the project has a digital exhibition website, a lecture series, and an array of curricular materials. The exhibition is curated by Kacie Lucchini Butcher, the director of the Public History Project; Taylor Bailey, assistant director; and Adriana Arthur, graduate student researcher and curatorial assistant; the Public History Project Steering Committee; and collaborative partnerships with student groups, community partners, and campus stakeholders.
Increasingly, higher-education institutions are recognizing the importance of examining their histories. While many have focused on thematic approaches, such as institutional connections to the slave trade or particularly horrific episodes, Sifting & Reckoning is groundbreaking in its expansive coverage of the history of discrimination and resistance at UW–Madison. This process of sifting and reckoning provides a unique opportunity for our campus to reflect on our past and work towards creating a more equitable future.
Visit the exhibition website for more history and images.
Visit the Public History Project website.
Programming & Financial Support
The UW-Madison Public History Project was made possible with support and funding provided by the Office of the Chancellor using private funds.