The History of the Illinois River Valley
3:25 pm
Wed August 22, 2012

New Exhibits & Research at Dickson Mounds

Dickson Mounds Museum near Lewistown will begin installing some new exhibits that should change the look of the facility within the next year. In addition, the museum's staff continues conducting research into the Illinois River Valley's long history.

New Exhibits

The story currently told at the museum ends in 1673 when the French first arrived in west central Illinois. The new exhibits will cover the next 160 years and will explore the relationship between Native Americans and the early settlers from Europe.

Museum Director Michael Wiant said no current exhibits will be replaced to make way for the new ones.

“It turns out that much of the work that was done here when the museum was renovated in the early '90s really focused on the floor and away from the walls. That means that the walls effectively are now a bare canvas that we have to work with,” said Dr Wiant.

“There are ways that we are going to integrate this broader story into the perimeter of the exhibits. So things will stay the same but they will also be quite different.”

Dickson Mounds Museum Director Michael Wiant
Dickson Mounds Museum Director Michael Wiant
Credit Rich Egger

The new exhibits will focus on land treaties, the impact of the War of 1812, and the implications of the Blackhawk War. Wiant said the Blackhawk War in 1832 led to the end of Natives holding land in Illinois.

Wiant said maps of land treaties will be displayed. The museum will implement technology such as QR codes so people looking at the maps can use their smart phones to dig deeper and read the treaty language if they choose.

Wiant said he still hears from supporters and detractors of the Dickson Mounds burial exhibit that included Native American remains. There was an outcry that led to removal of the display in the early 1990s but curiosity about it remains so the museum will create an electronic version of what it was like.

“We can use animal remains and plant remains. We can look at spearheads and pieces of pottery. It turns out that human beings tell us a story that we can't gain otherwise,” Wiant said.

“So we're going to used this three-dimensional, digital exhibit as a backdrop, and it will be a backdrop to telling the story about what these people told us about the past.”

He said no remains or photographs of remains or drawings of actual remains will be used.

“The way the exhibit is created is we used a generic digital skeleton and essentially pieced it together anatomically so that it is a representation but it doesn't use any of the materials that are controversial.”

Wiant said the museum wants to be respectful in the way it educates. He hoped the exhibit will provide information about the past without being offensive.

New Research

Wiant said researcher Alan Harn just completed the monograph “Emiquon: 600 Generations.” He said Harn is now writing about the Dickson Mounds excavations.

“Prior to the construction of this building, there was a good bit of archeological work that was done. Much is not yet reported and Alan is writing that monograph now,” Wiant said.

Wiant said researcher Michael Conner is working with Michigan State University researchers on the Morton Village excavation, which is a short distance from the museum.

One of the pits at the Morton Village excavation
One of the pits at the Morton Village excavation
Credit Rich Egger

He said researchers have learned a great deal, but there is a great deal more to uncover.

“We're at the great point in science when we know just enough to ask the next question,” Wiant said.

He is especially interested in how and why humans began cultivating crops.

“If you look at human history, something like 99.7% of our existence we were hunters and gatherers. We relied completely on what nature would provide. That last three-tenths of a percent turns out to be the time in which we produce food,” Wiant said.

“I think we would be enormously well-served to understand how humanity made that transition.”

Wiant said plant cultivation happened at different times in different parts of the world. The big question is: Were the motivating factors the same?

He said the Illinois River Valley and the uplands that surround it provide a fabulous archeological lab. He said there are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of sites that might provide some answers.