More than four walls: South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum can go on the road

Gwen McCausland shows off an exhibit at the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum. Two-dimensional “panel exhibits,” such as “Drowning in Dirt,” can be disassembled and set up in other venues — when people can’t come to the museum, the museum can go to the people. (John Kubal/Brookings Register)

BROOKINGS — You’ve got visitors coming to town and you’re looking to provide them some sightseeing and entertainment. You can do both with one stop, right here in Brookings. And it has free admission: the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum. So whether it’s your hayseed country cousins or your city slicker in-laws — ages young, old or in-between — they’ll find exhibits of interest at the Ag Heritage Museum.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve broadened our focus,” explained Gwen McCausland, museum director since May 2014. “So we changed our mission statement: ‘To inspire a passion for the diverse history, culture and science of agriculture in South Dakota.’

“Not only do we talk about the history, but we also try to include maybe the culture of rural life or the science behind it. So when we did an exhibit about ‘The Rural Electrification Act,’ we also included the science behind electricity.

“We then took some of those elements and put them into our ‘Wind Energy’ permanent display, so kids can have that hands-on activity.

“For our current exhibit — ‘Drowning in Dirt: Joseph Hutton and the Dust Bowl’ — we designed that one as a traveling exhibit. It incorporates the poetry, speeches and  photography of Joseph Hutton. That also then gives that glimpse of rural life. … He really believed that soil was the source of all life. … He believed that the way you managed the soil would create a permanent agriculture. That was his concept. It was all about sustainability.” (Note: the exhibit will be on display August 20-24.)

McCausland also noted changes to the museum’s layout. That allows for more frequent changes to the east gallery, which now has open space for educational programming: workshops, lectures, and hands-on programs such as “beer tasting” and “cooking demonstrations.”

“We like to have a nice variety, where we have a lot of our school activities,” she added.

On the road again

The directed explained that “panel exhibits,” such as the present one, “Drowning in Dirt: Joseph Hutton and the Dust Bowl,” are two-dimensional and can be easily set up and taken down; so they can do double-duty.

“They’re designed to travel,” the director explained. “They can be taken down and packed up. Because we put so much time, effort and research into these exhibits, we want to not just limit them to our gallery space; we want to bring our museum out to the public beyond our four walls. If they can’t come to the museum, we bring the museum to them.”

Most of the museum’s exhibits are created in-house by staff: they write, design and develop the exhibits. Add to that mix the availability of special knowledge and talent available from people affiliated with South Dakota State University, such as faculty professors — both active and retired — from a variety of disciplines: the Dust Bowl exhibit brought in subject-matter experts who included historians, geographers and soil scientists.

“We try to incorporate not only scholars on-campus, but authors and scholars off-campus to help enrich what we are interpreting in the exhibit,” McCausland explained. “So we might not be able to tell an in-depth story within the exhibit, but we flesh that out with bringing in other programs involved with that.”

From about the end of April to the beginning of June, the museum is visited by about 1,000 students in grades K through 12. Museum staff coordinate tours for other entities, so the visiting students and their escorts visit other on-campus points of interest: for example the Dairy Bar, McCrory Gardens, South Dakota Art Museum, cow-calf unit and the sports arenas.

“We call it a one-stop shop,” the director explained. The go-to point of contact for tours and visits is education coordinator Sarah Jacobs, who can be reached via the museum’s website.

Post-pandemic rebound

Permanent museum exhibits include: heavy agricultural machinery; wind energy, a claim shanty; a farm house with a mid-29th Century feel to it, with some basic electrical appliances; and a children’s exhibit which has several units that are featured on a rotational basis.

Not surprisingly, the museum took a hit on attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic: “On average we have about 9,000 (visitors) a year,” the director explained. “We’re just getting up to pre-pandemic numbers. We were completely closed for about six months during 2020. During 2021 it was very limited. A year ago spring is when we saw school tours coming back.”

McCausland brings a strong agricultural background to her duties. She grew up on a Corriedale sheep farm in North Dakota, where her father also had a veterinary clinic and she “was very involved in his work.” She’s a “multi-generational” 4H member. Today she still enjoys craftwork tied to that background: “I enjoy fiber art: spinning wool, knitting and crocheting.”

She’s also “really passionate about the local foods movement, farmers and ranchers that produce in the area. And I do gardening and things like that.”

By way of education, she has degrees in the field of anthropology, beginning with an undergraduate degree earned at North Dakota State University (Fargo): “For awhile I was a dual major in public history, so I took a lot of museum study courses,” McCausland said. And I did several internships in museums and historic sites.”

She did graduate work at Cardiff University (Wales, United Kingdom). Following that she returned to the United States and worked in several museums. Most of her career prior to coming to the Ag Heritage Museum was spent in collections and exhibit design at museums in North Dakota, Minnesota and New Mexico.

Her master’s degree is “under the umbrella of anthropology.” Her hands-on work and scholastic work — in such a variety of jobs, both here in the United States and abroad — helped her gain the skills needed for her post as director of the Ag Heritage Museum: her “ideal job.” And she’s used those skills and her talents to put a personal stamp on the museum.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected].

SIDEBAR: Remembering the time we set off the museum's alarms

I’m a big fan of the Ag Heritage Museum, but I don’t visit it as often as I would like to. However, I did attend the “beer tasting” exhibit a few years ago. And I like to take out-of town visitors to the museum. That led to one of my more memorable visits, probably 20 or so years ago.

My wife Bea’s sister and her sister Martha Jean’s late husband Leo were in town for the weekend. Leo was an Iowa farmer and an avid collector of old John Deere tractors. I knew he would appreciate and impressed by a visit to the museum.

We arrived early on a Saturday morning, about 9 a.m. when I had assumed the museum would open. However, the sign on the door said it would open at 10 a.m. I think I missed that. However, I pulled on the door handle — and it opened. And the alarm system activated. No panic.

Leo and I got in the car and I headed to the University Police Department to explain what had happened and that I had not planned to break in. On the way I passed a UPD car headed in the opposite direction — to the Museum in answer to an alarm going off?

I made it to the UPD and was not held or incarcerated. I explained what had happened and Leo and I went back to the museum later when the doors opened and we could legally enter. We enjoyed the visit and Leo was impressed — especially by the antique farm machinery — and he learned a lot about the culture and history of agriculture in South Dakota.

Like a Shakespearean play, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

I don’t know if the episode made it into the UPD blotter for the day.

Reporter John Kubal, The Brookings Register