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Explore the Minnesota History Center in Downtown St. Paul

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The Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul is the state's premier historical museum / Rebecca Studios, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Explore the Minnesota History Center in Downtown St. Paul

By Sheila Regan

Minnesota’s premier historical museum offers an interactive, visually stimulating glimpse of the state’s history and people, presenting exhibitions that are organized around both theme and period.

Minnesota History Center holds over a million archaeological objects, art pieces, government records, books, manuscripts, maps and photographs in its cavernous basement. Drawing from this massive collection, the museum uses immersive, multimedia storytelling techniques to bring those historical ephemera to life.

This family-friendly St. Paul museum is operated by the larger Minnesota Historical Society, which runs 26 sites all around the state including a historic North Woods logging camp, an entire 1850s pioneer town and more.

Train car and other historical stations at "Then Now Wow" exhibit

A multimedia, interactive Soo Line boxcar on display at the Minnesota History Center / Zach Butler, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Current Minnesota Stories & Exhibits

The museum’s rotating slate of exhibits uses audio, video and textual storytelling tools (along with three-dimensional, interactive stations) to imbue Minnesota history with an uncommon level of insight and nuance. The museum also frequently employs first-person narratives to fully immerse visitors in the state’s people, places and stories.

Here are a few of the exhibits currently on display.

Two women admire an embroidered, Native American jacket in a museum display

An embroidered jacket on display at Minnesota History Center's "Our Home: Native Minnesota" exhibit / Angela Jimenez, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Our Home: Native Minnesota

As you enter the History Center’s marvelous Our Home: Native Minnesota exhibition, which tells stories of Native communities in Minnesota, Gwen Westerman’s “Star Knowledge” quilt grabs your eye right away. The colorful work intersperses bright blues, greens and purples amidst its more earth-toned colors, stitched together with tremendous artistry. Quilted in 2014, the inclusion of work by living Native artists such as Westerman is a key part of the exhibition, which challenges notions that Native culture and people exist solely in the past.

The quilt helps articulate a major theme of the exhibition: adaptation by Native communities. Dakota people, for example, weren’t traditionally quilters. The four-pointed star on Westerman’s quilt was traditionally used in beading practices and was only adopted into quilting when missionaries introduced the practice into the community.

Another example of this theme can be found in a group of 19th century photographs featuring Native women making lace, another craft introduced by missionaries. The exhibition offers opportunities to think critically about these moments of intersection between Native and settler communities.

Four kids play with a life-size buffalo puzzle while learning how American Indians used each part of the animal

A life-size buffalo puzzle helps kids learn how American Indians used each part of the animal / Brady Willette, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

Then Now Wow

The History Center’s Then Now Wow exhibition is a kid-friendly, interactive experience that tells the story of Minnesota through a variety of “Wow!” moments that helped shape the state. Touching on Native communities both historically and today, fur trading, the iron range and waves of immigration over the years, it offers kids a fun way to think three-dimensionally about different facets of Minnesota history.

There are tons of interactive elements to this exhibition, including a life-sized teepee, sod house and streetcar. To tell the story of Minnesota’s Iron Range, there’s even a replica mine that kids can explore to see what it’s like to mine for iron ore. Some of the hands-on elements of the exhibition have been modified for COVID-19 safety, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Weather Permitting

Minnesota, in many ways, is defined by its extreme climate: the summer humidity, the winter blizzards, plus plenty of thunderstorms, tornadoes, ice storms, flooding events and droughts along the way. The Weather Permitting exhibition captures the extremes of Minnesota weather history, using those moments to help share the story of the state’s climate. The exhibition has a number of eye-popping pieces, including a model-size replica of the 1986 Winter Carnival Palace, which in real life was 128 feet and lit by a computerized lighting system.

Also a lot of fun is the replica of the 1965 Fridley tornado, which involved two F4 tornadoes that damaged over a thousand homes and businesses, completely destroying over 400 buildings including the junior high schools. Visitors get a sense of the tornado's strength from a spinning, green, sculptural replica of a twister, and once they're sufficiently awed by its power, they can rush down to a recreated 1960s basement to wait out the storm.

Extraordinary Women

Developed in partnership with the League of Women Voters of Minnesota, this exhibition highlights “extraordinary women” throughout Minnesota history, with particular emphases on the suffrage movement, the fight against housing discrimination, the American Indian Movement and other political flashpoints.

Borrowing a color scheme popular with many suffrage organizers, the exhibit's bright yellow background hosts black-and-white drawings of famous women from Minnesota history like Nellie Stone Johnson, Katie McWatt, Ruth Tanbara and Pat Bellanger.

Learn more about Minnesota's extraordinary women with the complimentary, Votes for Women online exhibit.

COVID-19 Protocols at the Minnesota History Center

Last updated: April 6, 2021

The museum is selling timed-entry tickets to help reduce crowding and allow for proper social distancing. Most visitors will want to purchase a ticket ahead of time on the museum website, but a limited number of walk-up appointments are available daily before 3 p.m. Masks and social distancing are required, and hand sanitizing stations are available throughout the museum. In addition, some of the exhibitions are currently closed or modified. The cafe is currently closed.

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More Minnesota Museums & Galleries

Museums dedicated to art, history, science and more are scattered throughout Minnesota. From family-focused children's museums to world-renowned art showcases, you'll love exploring Minnesota's museums and galleries

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a freelance writer, journalist and arts critic based in Minneapolis. She has covered dance, theater and the arts, in addition to news writing and feature reporting for local publications as well as national outlets, including Hyperallergic, the Washington Post, The Art Newspaper, ArtForum and Bomb.