It was hard to find a quiet spot at the Michigan History Museum on a rainy Friday this May to talk with the museum’s new director, Suzanne Fischer.
She likes the place loud and interactive. Against a hair-raising backdrop of suspension cables dangling over the Straits of Mackinac, enthusiastic 60-something volunteer Dick Henshaw had a group of kids enthralled.
“You guys want to hold a bolt from the Mackinac Bridge?” he asked with a conspiratorial wink. “Use two hands — don’t drop it and get me fired.”
When they all had hefted the bolt, Henshaw pulled out a blue light from the bridge and flashed it on and off. In between the razzle-dazzle, he snuck in a lot of information about the principles behind suspension bridges. The girls in the group lit up when Henshaw told them the bridge’s chief engineer is a woman.
Maybe things were quieter in pre-industrial times? No chance. At the entrance to the first-floor exhibits, which run in chronological order, a teacher and a group of 12-year-olds ooh-ed and aah-ed at staff artist Rich Geer’s brand-new floor-to-ceiling mural depicting Anishinaabe Native American life in early Michigan.
The panorama is crammed with busy people and fascinating details, like a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but without the disapproving moral tone.
“This is their summer house, and this is their winter house,” the teacher explained. “Look what they used for insulation.”
“Moss!” a girl cried out. We gave up on peace and quiet, sat down in a nearby canoe and did our best to talk above the din.
“We’re trying to encourage active looking and inquiry,” Fischer said.
The building opened in 1989 with second-floor exhibits depicting Michigan up to the 20th century. In 1995, exhibits on Michigan history from 1900 to the present were finished on the first floor. Fischer was named director at the end of 2016 and has been on the job for five months.
Last fall, the exhibit on Michigan’s first peoples was revamped, aided by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. It’s the first stage in a gradual re-envisioning of the whole museum. Curators worked with people from tribal communities across the state to put together the mural, unveiled last fall, and the artifacts that are shown along with it.
“That kind of collaboration was new for us, but that’s how museum practice has been going,” Fisher said.
Popular parts of the museum — like the nifty U.P. iron ore mining tunnel — will stay, but artifacts like the truly awful effigy of Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s first governor, are on their way out.
“Maybe he’ll get a farewell tour,” Fischer said. “We’re definitely going to tell this story differently.”
The statehood period will expand to tell a lot more untold stories.
“In 1836, there was a major treaty in which native people ceded two thirds of the state of Michigan,” Fischer said. “That’s not highlighted in our current exhibit. We don’t hear the stories of people who lost their land.”
Fischer and her staff were surprised to learn that in the late 19th century there were over 400 African-American owned farms in southwest Michigan, and they are looking for ways to tell that story as well.
Fischer, 36, grew up in Oak Park, a suburb of Detroit.
She set out to be a scientist, but her interests skewed more toward the stories behind scientific instruments.
She studied the history of science in graduate school and found work at small medical history museum in Minneapolis.
She still loves to study old gadgets, especially medical ones. She was fascinated by a “DIY iron lung” she just saw last month on a visit to the Marquette Regional History Center.
“It was made from packing boxes and powered by a phonograph motor,” she said.
Typewriters are among her obsessions. “The QWERTY keyboard was not inevitable,” she explained, warming fast to the topic. “There were all these options, different ways of thinking about the alphabet.”
She described a few at some length. “I like that kind of joyful chaos,” she said. “Everybody’s making things, and nobody knows who’s going to win.”
Fischer spent a few years as associate curator of technology at the Henry Ford Museum — “they have a fabulous typewriter collection” — then went to the West Coast to become a curator at the Oakland Museum of California.
An exhibit there about the 1960s typified the community-based approach Fischer wants to apply in Michigan.
“A lot of people in the Oakland area are heavily invested in the 1960s,” she said. “But whose 1960s?” The exhibit had 24 niches, each curated by a separate person who lived through the decade, from a John Birch Society right-winger to a member of the Black Panther party to a non-Baby Boomer who was in grade school in the 1960s.
At the Michigan History Museum, new exhibit ideas will be tried out in a prototype space — a smallish room where a film about lumbering used to be shown. The first exhibit will begin Sept. 30, an interactive exhibit about the Au Sable River, complete with fly-tying lessons.
Fischer is gradually moving into stories that are more socially and politically current. Next year, “States of Incarceration,” a national traveling exhibit about mass incarceration in America, will be tied into the museum’s items relating to Michigan prisons.
Fischer said she’s gotten a lot of ideas from a talkback board she installed on the second floor, including suggestions for exhibits about the Flint water crisis, contemporary Native American peoples and the state’s South Asian community.
“Sometimes the lowest tech things do very well,” she said.
As creepy Stevens T. Mason heads back to the waxworks, Fischer envisions a museum where people can come and recognize themselves.
She already hears from older baby boomers who are shocked to find some of their old stuff carefully arranged in the museum’s Eisenhower-era kitchen exhibit.
“Now everybody’s stuff is going to be in the museum,” she said. “It’s all one story, and it just keeps going.”