“What’s It Like […] in Morrison County?”: Towards a more inclusive representation of history

A few weeks ago, I came across this blog post series on AASLH’s Small Museum Online Community, describing “What’s it Like […] in Morrison County” (Minnesota), a participatory project through which participants were invited to submit essays highlighting various aspects of life in the county. One essay, turned into a small exhibit, described what it’s like to be transgendered in Morrison County. I immediately contacted the author and Museum Manager, Mary Warner, to hear more about this bold project and invite her to blog for the Incluseum.    

As counties go, Morrison County is one of the most historically diverse counties in Minnesota. The Dakota and Ojibwe made the land their home prior to European/American settlement and, prior to them, there were mound builders. When Europeans and Americans settled here from the 1840s through early 1900s, they represented a minimum of 11 different nationalities, with large numbers of Germans settling on the east side of the Mississippi River and Scandinavians favoring the west side. Scotch-Canadians moved into the southern part of the county along the river and French-Canadians found a home at Belle Prairie, making Morrison County home to one of the largest French-Canadian communities in the state (see map below).

Immigration map of Morrison County. Image courtesy: Morrison County Historical Society

Immigration map of Morrison County. Image courtesy: Morrison County Historical Society

This diversity serves as an unspoken guide to the Morrison County Historical Society’s mission of collecting, preserving and sharing county history. To be true to our history, we have to be inclusive and make sure to collect history representative of all of our groups. We can’t choose the Ojibwe at the expense of the Poles.

Along with the larger nationalistic groups, Morrison County has had its share of smaller groups that, to our way of thinking, are no less important than the majority populations. In our entire history, we’ve had maybe 20 Jewish families (that we know of) make the county their home. What was it like as a Jewish family to be surrounded by Catholics and Protestants? We want to know and that curiosity drives our collecting as much as our desire to represent the county’s diversity.

How, too, do residents who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) experience life in Morrison County? Having grown up in the county, twenty-some years ago, the LGBT kids in my class were not allowed to be open about their sexuality because of the stigma attached to being anything other than heterosexual. Yet, between 3-4% of my classmates identify as LGBT. With a class size of 260 students, that percentage shows county residents in the LGBT community far outnumber Jewish families. How could we not collect that history?

Thankfully, in the course of a generation, I’ve seen that some of my children’s friends have been comfortable with identifying as LGBT while still in high school.  This openness among young people seemed like the easiest avenue for starting to collect LGBT history. Thus, the “What’s It Like […] in Morrison County?” essay project was born, inspired by one of my son’s friends, who contributed the “What’s It Like [To Be Transgendered] in Morrison County?” essay (see excerpt below).

“I was born in the Little Falls hospital and my birth certificate says 7 lbs 6oz, Female. ­Despite ­having been born biologically female, my whole life I knew that this was wrong. As a child I was frequently bullied because I was very meek, but generally I got along well with both boys and girls. When I got older and everyone around me and myself ­began puberty the differences between boys and girls became terribly evident and I knew that my body was changing the way it shouldn’t have. Instead of my voice getting deeper and muscles developing, I began bleeding and my chest started swelling. I was revolted with myself. I found myself growing increasingly depressed every time I was called “she” and discovered how little I had in common with the girls around me. I wanted ­badly to be “one of the guys” when in the company of my male friends despite my best efforts to fit in, I was always treated like a girl.” – Anonymous [Excerpt from “What’s It Like [To Be Transgendered] in Morrison County?” Full-length essay available here.]

The goal of the project is to collect 100 essays describing various aspects of life in the county, not just what it’s like to be transgender or gay. The essay project spawned the exhibit, with excerpts from many of the essays being used as exhibit text. One exhibit case is dedicated to the transgender essay. There was never a question about whether we would use this essay for an exhibit, just as there was never a question that we’d use a portion of “What’s It Like [To Be a Paper Boy]” or “What’s It Like [To Volunteer at Church]” for the exhibit. (Because the project involves posting and submitted essays online, we allow our writers to remain anonymous if they choose, which is the case with our transgender essayist.)

Exhibit case illustrating the “What’s It Like [To Be Transgendered] in Morrison County?” essay. Photo courtesy: Morrison County Historical Society

Exhibit case illustrating the “What’s It Like [To Be Transgendered] in Morrison County?” essay. Photo courtesy: Morrison County Historical Society

As for best practices with an essay project, one thing to keep in mind is that it’s HARD to get people to write. We knew it would be a challenge going in, so we set a very low word count (250 words) for submitting an essay. Also, we set a specific goal for number of essays (100) so we could gauge our progress.
If you want people to write about subjects that aren’t yet in your museum’s collection, you have to personally ask. You can’t count on press releases and project descriptions to convey that. People who belong to a “minority” group may not see their stories as important. Asking helps elevate their stories, showing them that the museum cares.
When we designed the project, we also had young people in mind for contributing essays (elementary through college). Typically, when we’re asked to do oral histories, people tell us to interview seniors before we lose their history. However, it’s just as instructive to collect history from young people, even if it seems they haven’t lived long enough to have a history. Their enthusiasm and openness make for wonderful essays. We’ve been fortunate to have essays submitted across the age spectrum.

Being inclusive means including all the parts of our history in exhibits and articles so that all of our residents see themselves reflected in our collections.

Mary Warner is the Museum Manager for the Morrison County Historical Society, which owns and operates The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum in Little Falls, MN. She has been with the organization for over 16 years.


While this blogpost was being prepared, Nina Simon interviewed Mary for Museum 2.0. The interview is a great complement to Mary’s contribution above, we encourage all of you to check it out.

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One comment

  1. […] After seeing our series of posts regarding our “What’s It Like […] in Morrison County?” project and exhibit on AASLH’s Small Museums Online Community, we were asked to submit a post to The Incluseum blog. The post has been published and you can read it here. […]

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