Museum showcases Great Lakes history

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TOLEDO, Ohio -- You probably know the Great Lakes hold the world's largest supply of fresh water, that downwind places get some of the world's heaviest snowfalls, and that four of the lakes straddle the U.S.-Canada border.

Besides recreational activities such as fishing and boating, you probably know the lakes are traveled by cargo ships -- and one of which mysteriously and famously sank 38 years ago during a furious Lake Superior storm.

But how much do you know about the Great Lakes' role in European colonization of the Midwest, or native cultures that thrived in the region before Europeans arrived? Or that Prohibition-era liquor smugglers used the lakes in the 20th century, then Navy pilots for training during World War II?

All of these elements and more are highlighted in the new National Museum of the Great Lakes that opened Saturday.

If you go: National Museum of the Great Lakes
Where: 1701 Front St., Toledo, OH;
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Admission: Adult, museum only, $8; museum and Schoonmaker, $12. Senior, child: museum only, $7; museum and Schoonmaker, $11. Children 5 and under free.

"If people walk away saying, 'I didn't realize how much happened on the Great Lakes and how important it is to our history,' then we've done our job," Chris Gillcrist, the Great Lakes Historical Society's executive director, said last week during a break from overseeing the museum's finishing touches.

The displays

The more than 9,000 square feet of displays inside the Toledo Maritime Center include 258 historical artifacts from Great Lakes vessels and other sources, all but four of them from a collection the historical society has amassed since its 1940s formation.

But as promised when the society announced its design plans nearly two years ago, the new museum -- uprooted from a smaller version in Vermilion, Ohio -- is far more than a collection of things. It features an array of documentary videos and interactive displays -- some geared toward children, but others are clearly directed to adults, like a comparison of excerpts from on-board diaries of a 19th-century ship's captain and a deckhand.

Visitors can test their ability to hoist a heavy backpack like ones early explorers carried, experience the labor of pumping a ship's bilge -- in the days of leaky wooden schooners, a nearly constant task -- or work together to fire the simulated engine of a coal-powered freighter.

PG graphic: National Museum of the Great Lakes
(Click image for larger version)

"The key to a successful museum is a diversity of experiences, even for the youngest kids," Mr. Gillcrist said.


Many of those activities were "kid-tested" with first-graders brought in from several local parochial schools.

Changes made based on those "tests," the society director noted, include replacing the metal coal shovel for the ship's-engine exhibit with a plastic one.

"My daughter said, 'This is neat, but the boys in my class will hit each other with this [shovel],' " he explained.

And, of course, there's the museum ship Col. James M. Schoonmaker, twice rescued from the brink of scrapping and towed in late 2012 to a slip next to the museum site from International Park, where it was better known as the S.S. Willis B. Boyer.

Two of the Schoonmaker's cabins are decorated with exhibits highlighting its two corporate owners, the Shenango Furnace Co. and Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. -- the latter of which renamed it the Boyer. But it's otherwise set up to look like it would have when it was in service hauling iron ore, coal and other bulk cargoes across the Great Lakes.

"It's being able to be in the pilot house, in the engine room" that is the historic experience, Mr. Gillcrist said. "It's our biggest artifact."

It's also one of the handful of artifacts that doesn't belong to the society. The Schoonmaker still belongs to the city of Toledo but is under a long-term management agreement with the society, Mr. Gillcrist said.

The Schoonmaker is moored next to an outdoor plaza with landscaping, benches and four interpretive markers intended to give passers-by a brief treatment of Great Lakes history and entice them into the museum.

Getting started

Many first-time visitors' experiences will start with a 6½-minute introductory video that will play on a recurring basis in a circular theater room off the entrance lobby. Doors from that area will lead directly to the "technology ring," with exhibits that will explain Great Lakes vessels' evolution from large voyager canoes to 1,000-foot freighters.

Beyond that ring, exhibits will divide into four subject areas: Early Exploration and Settlement, Expansion and Industry, Safeguard and Support, and Shipwrecks and Survival. Each gallery is introduced by a themed map near its entrance.

The Nov. 10, 1975, wreck of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, whose captain and many of its other 28 crew members were from the Toledo area, is a focal point of the latter section. One of two life rafts that bobbed to the surface after the "Big Fitz" sank in Canadian waters is on display, and visitors can make a virtual visit to the wreckage using a submersible-vessel simulator.

The exhibit includes explanations of the leading -- and conflicting -- theories of why the Fitzgerald went down, but Mr. Gillcrist took care to emphasize that no preference for any theory is stated.

"None of them has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.

Other featured artifacts include one of the first gold medals awarded when the U.S. government established a life-saving award to be given to civilians who heroically aided shipwrecked mariners; an authentic 19th-century life-saving boat; and, outside, a 22-ton propeller from the lake freighter John Sherwin.

The 254 historical society-owned artifacts represent only about 10 percent of the items in its collection, Mr. Gillcrist said.

"We wanted to pick items that tell the stories we want to tell and did it in a compelling way," he said.

The freighter propeller, he said, already has become a popular backdrop for portrait photographers.

The museum's permanent displays will be supplemented from time to time with special exhibits in a multipurpose room separate from the main galleries. Special events timed to seasons or holidays also will be held.

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