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Worth a Thousand Words: Public History Project

The UW–Madison Public History Project was commissioned to sift through the university’s past, reckon with history, and work toward a better future. Its inaugural exhibit, Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance, opened last fall.

Hayden Lamphere
January 31, 2023
Sifting and Reckoning exhibit entrance

Following white supremacist attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, former UW chancellor Rebecca Blank commissioned a study group to investigate campus-approved white supremacist groups throughout the 20th century. The study’s findings were published in a report alongside several commitments made by the Office of the Chancellor to expand curricular offerings, promote faculty diversity, and foster a better sense of campus belonging for marginalized populations. Included in these commitments was the establishment of a public history project to “document and share the voices of those on campus who endured, fought and overcame prejudice … throughout the history of the university.”

The UW–Madison Public History Project “stands as a commitment to sifting through and reckoning with our history in order to move toward a better future.” In this spirit, the project’s first exhibit, Sifting & Reckoning: UW–Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance, opened at the Chazen Museum of Art on September 12, 2022. Through archival objects, photographs, and oral histories, the exhibit highlighted the stories of campus community members who met bigotry and exclusion with perseverance and resistance.  

Covering more than 150 years, Sifting & Reckoning invited visitors to interact with the university’s past and “meet the university’s first students of color, explore early struggles for equality in social organizations, housing, and athletics, and learn about protest movements on campus.” To engage the campus community at large, free events including talks, panels, and presentations accompanied the exhibit throughout the fall. Though Sifting & Reckoning closed at the Chazen in December, the exhibit and accompanying educational materials are available to view online.

Designed as a multiyear effort, the Public History Project began in 2019 and is set to end in the summer of 2023. Upon seeing the community’s resounding positive response to such a difficult endeavor, Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced in January plans to extend the life of the project. When it expires in midsummer, the UW’s newly established Rebecca M. Blank Center for Campus History will take up the Public History Project’s mantle and give its mission a permanent place on campus. Its findings will continue to inform diversity, equity, and inclusion work across UW–Madison for years to come.

Keep scrolling to see images from the Public History Project’s inaugural exhibit, Sifting & Reckoning, at the Chazen Museum of Art. Image credits: Jeff Miller/UW–Madison.

Public History Project exhibit

A private reception brought together UW–Madison students, staff, and community members for the exhibit’s opening.

Public History Project exhibit

A feature in the exhibit, Who Is a Badger?, provided pen and paper for visitors to answer the prompt: “Do you call yourself a Badger? Why or why not?”

Taylor Bailey MA’22 and Kacie Lucchini Butcher, leaders of the Public History Project

Taylor Bailey MA’22 (left) and Kacie Lucchini Butcher (right), assistant director and director of the UW–Madison Public History Project, pose in front of the exhibit.

Public History Project forum

The Chazen Museum’s 2022 Diversity Forum, “The Power of Remembering: Reclaiming Our Legacies to Imagine New Futures,” featured a public panel discussion including Lucchini Butcher along with UW–Madison’s fall journalists in residence, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah, cohosts and coproducers of NPR’s podcast Throughline. The discussion was moderated by history professor Christy Clark-Pujara (far right).

Chancellor Mnookin in front of Public History Project exhibit

Chancellor Mnookin looks over notes left by visitors to the exhibit.

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