Making Ethnic Identity through Objects

Ann Smart Martin

In the 1870s Cathinka Tank Doderlein Otteson, wife of the Lutheran pastor at Koshkonong, WI, hosted a young woman soon to become a pastor’s wife in her home.  In the young guest’s memory, the older woman’s advice was simple: life in parsonages in America was simply different from those in Norway.  The “old way” was just not practical. Moving to America dramatically changed the homes, work, and identities of women. Later generations of Norwegian-Americans would change them again.[1]

This exhibition highlights 150 year-old cycles of voluntary immigration, adaptation, and re-formulation of ethnic identity across different situations and generations. Such cultural shifts often are most successful when changes are incremental, regularly practiced by individuals in their daily lives, and reinforced as part of group experience. Hence, immigrant groups like the Norwegians in Wisconsin were able to navigate their new lives and maintain their ethnic identities through the making of distinctive buildings, dress, and household furnishings.[2]

Studying the Northern Europeans who flooded to Wisconsin and subsequent generations by examining their possessions in a historical society is a surprisingly fruitful way to understand such evolutions in history and humanity. What would a life in a completely new country require? What would a Norwegian farmer bring along to maintain a livelihood or his wife to clothe and feed a family? What objects helped maintain a human connection to one’s past? As important, how did the making and enjoying of such objects change as these immigrants attempted to both replicate and improve their lives in a new set of conditions? How did such ideas as taste and style persevere and how did they change?

The relationship that my students and I formed with the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society has allowed us all to ponder these connections. I am a scholar of the history of objects, both fine arts and everyday things. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I teach the topic of material culture, a specialized name to describe that set of expectations and personal relationships between humans and the material world. I am particularly interested in how and why people relate to objects and often to each other through them. So too, I wonder about the “lives of objects” and how the varying stages of making, buying, and living with objects intersect with what their later fate when they leave the home as heirlooms or enter museums, second-hand stores, or landfills.

The MHAHS has many objects in their collections, but often only cursory research had been done to build upon the notes in the files. Beginning in the fall of 2015, my classes have researched varying items to understand their history and the stories of their users, savers, collectors and donors. The classes were usually small and a mix of advanced undergraduates and graduate students. They came from many different backgrounds, with specialized studies in Art History, Design Studies, Folklore, History, Interior Architecture, Library and Information Studies, Material Culture, Philosophy and Textiles.

Each semester the ever-patient Johnna Buysse provided a selection of possible objects to research based on their overall interest and good family connections. Each student learned and used material culture research methods to tweak and prod them to tell extraordinary stories. The first semester’s class (Fall 2015) studied some objects related to ethnic emigrants, but all were some of the “greatest hits” of the collection. Three Art graduate students made an installation of their own works that were inspired by the historic objects they studied. The class presented their research papers in January 2016 at Mt. Horeb to an impressive turnout of families and fans of the town.  Another research semester followed in Spring 2016, focusing on the Donald family and related “make do” culture of the late 19th and early 20th century.

During a class visit early in the spring of 2016, the Mt. Horeb staff and I decided to join forces in their opening exhibition. The next year’s students would take an additional semester and help curate by writing interpretative labels. I have coordinated six student exhibitions of art, artifacts, decorative arts, and science—yes, even taxidermy and physics instruments—and each had presented unique challenges. But only one had managed to create a catalog. Steel Wagstaff of Learning Support Services at UW-Madison was just beginning a new initiative of creating electronic books as a form of university publication and he thought this would be a great opportunity to present our course research and produce a catalog. The students went far beyond normal classwork expectations to research and produce the interpretive labels for the catalog and the amazing e-book document. Laura Schmidt skillfully managed electronic book production and Larissa Cangussa designed the book cover. A great collection, talented professionals, determined students, classes that teach good writing and critical thinking, and brand-new technologies at the UW-Madison all came together in just the right moment. Such a coming together is also proof of the special nature of the Wisconsin idea when the university brings ideas to and gains knowledge from local communities around the state.

What can we learn by studying the effects of northern Europeans to American culture more than a century ago? Beginning in the eighteenth century, repeating patterns of intolerance and discrimination against each of the major European immigrant groups—German, Irish, Italian, Pole, and others—prevented many immigrants from melding into the anonymous American identity. Others gladly self-segregated with their in-group, creating a community with separate languages and distinctive architecture, dress, and household furnishings.

Evolving governmental policies changed the importance of ethnicity and nationhood in the twentieth century. The Immigration Act of 1965 removed many kinds of preferential treatment for Europeans who wished to move to America. This action created different problems of ethnic identification. Like the experience of enslaved Africans centuries before, this legislation opened the gates to more and different people whose physical appearances set them apart from the white majority. Moreover, the further blending of multiple ethnic and racial groups through inter-marriage only further complicate our understanding. Modern governmental policies like the census allow for racial and ethnic identity to be self-identified. This leads us to ask if American society is pluralist (defined by groups) or flexible and multi-cultural. [3]

Another important shift in our quest to understand preferred ethnic identity occurred in the last half of the twentieth century. Generations away from the immigration of their ethnic forebears, Americans searched for authentic heritage in the marketplace. They “shopped for it” as American marketers of consumer goods both embraced and exploited a wish for an authentic heritage. Fashion borrowed details of ethnic costume; cuisine took in global scents and tastes. Musicians borrowed and sampled the sounds of the world, even as they turned backward and inward to old-fashioned pump organs and fiddles in American “roots music.” [4]

In a trend throughout the twentieth century that peaked around the nation’s bicentennial (1976), many communities donated funds and created institutions to accept and interpret objects deemed important to mark their heritage. Such was the case to establish the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society in 1975 and to create their new Driftless Historium forty-two years later. Through these institutions, we learn about communities, customs, and collectors. Through careful curation of objects in an exhibition, we see more clearly how history, ethnicity, and identity intertwine.

This exhibition introduces us to many people and teaches us about many household objects. The trunks and mangle boards that immigrants brought to a new settlement were made to be useful, appear beautiful, and remind of home. Craftsman Azaak Lie updated his native Norwegian woodworking skills to fit American styles and tastes. The “artist farmer” Martin Cliff drew upon both his Norwegian heritage and popular arts and crafts of the period. When Oljanna Cunneen and Patricia Edmundson crafted trolls or rosemaled dishes, they looked back at a romantic heritage.  Isaak Lee established little Norway to revel in his beloved mythical landscape of buildings and objects and commissioned Olaf Colberson to decorate walls and furniture, including a traditional kubbestol updated with rockers.

The pride in these artists and their work was a hallmark of a community that valued their ethnic heritage. Ultimately, the Mt. Horeb Chamber of Commerce officials would decorate a town water tank  with rosemaling and support a roadway series of troll sentinels to create a cultural landscape that would solidify the town’s own identity. In sum, they used all these kinds of objects to define ethnicity, remember Mt. Horeb’s past, and guard its future.

A simple plate can go unnoticed, but its purpose and value can tell many cultural stories. This exhibition has demonstrated how to use an object to think about historical patterns, such as whether an immigrant packed an item for a long journey or its creator updated its traditional form after settling in America. Perhaps it shows a passion for a re-invented and romanticized past or how heritage can be a commodity. In all these instances, a material object demonstrates that ethnicity is not a static trait but something slowly evolving as it is lived and experienced. Each item in this exhibition is a unique expression of a person’s identity and a clue to the special something that makes the Mount Horeb community so vibrant today.

  1. L. DeAne Lagerquist, In America the Men Milk the Cows: Factors of Gender, Ethnicity and Religion in the Americanization of Norwegian-American Women (Brooklyn, N.Y.  Carlson Publishing Inc. 1991)
  2. Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999
  3. Mary C. Waters, “Multiple Ethnic Identity Choices” in Wendy F. Katkin, Ned Landsman, and Andrea Tyree, Beyond Pluralism: The Conception of Groups and Group Identities in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 19980. pp. 28-32.
  4. Marilyn Halter, Shopping for Identity:  The Marketing of Ethnicity (New York: Schocken Books, 2000)


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