Past Exhibits

Under Construction!

As we prepare for the construction of a new Wisconsin history center, exhibits are closed as artifacts have been moved into safe storage.  Follow along to be a part of this exciting journey! 

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History of a Museum

Construction will soon be underway on a new, state-of-the-art history center set to be completed in 2026. The origins of a historical museum representing Wisconsin go back over 150 years.  

Collections were first displayed in the State Capitol in 1866 when the Wisconsin Legislature gave the Society three rooms in the capitol building. The collection of artifacts quickly grew too large for the space with over 15,000 people visiting each year. 

A new museum opened in the Society’s headquarters on the UW-Madison campus in 1900, with new displays and much more space that could accommodate 35,000 annual visitors. Collections and interest continued to grow over the next eight decades before it became clear the museum needed a dedicated space of its own. 

The current Wisconsin Historical Museum opened in 1986, at the top of State Street on Madison’s Capitol Square. The building was converted from an old hardware store. The move gave the museum a much larger 17,500 square feet of exhibition space and allowed thousands more visitors and students to explore Wisconsin history until 2022, when it was announced that a new history center would be constructed on the same site.  

Past Special Temporary Exhibits

Past Core Exhibits

People of the Woodlands

Past Exhibit

This exhibit has been moved into safe storage as we prepare for the new Wisconsin history center

First Settlers

Who were the first people in Wisconsin? How do we discover their history? This exhibit showcases artifacts left by Wisconsin’s first settlers, an immersive recreation of a ca. 1,000- year- old Aztalan house, and interactive explorations of how archaeologists discover history.

  • PaleoIndian | Archaic | Woodland | Late Woodland | Oneota
  • Effigy Mounds
  • Aztalan: A Native American Town
  • The Grand Village of the Meskwaki
  • Layers of History
  • What Do Archaeologists Do?

The Busy Years

Explore a year in the life of an Ojibwe family. Guests can look inside a replica wigwam from the 1700s, explore the process of wild ricing, and learn about traditions that come with each passing season.
“Wigwam, A Winter Home,” ice fishing, hunting and trapping, medicines
Maple sugaring, from bark to string, fishing, deer hunting
Basswood bark bags, woven bags, wood utensils, mat making, yarn bags, gardening and gathering, “The Bark Lodge: A Summer Home”
Preparing food for winter, cattail mats, wild ricing, courting flutes

Era of Exchange

European exploration and the fur trade brought a new era to Wisconsin—an era of trade, discovery, and conflict. Look inside our replica trading post, learn about the trappers, traders, and explorers who participated in the fur trade, and examine the fraught history of treaties between Native Peoples of Wisconsin and Europeans.

  • Fur Trade Post
  • Native Women of the Fur Trade
  • The Trade
  • The Jesuits
  • Wisconsin Treaties

Native Nations and Tribes

How does tradition live on today? Learn how American Indians practice and perform their culture in Wisconsin through art, clothing, dance, language, and stories.

  • Images of the Ho-Chunk
  • Living Tradition: Performing and Practicing American Indian Culture in Wisconsin
  • A Tradition of Change/Art in Everyday Life
  • The Powwow
  • Native Languages of Wisconsin
  • Between Two Worlds: Indian Boarding Schools in Wisconsin

Gallery of People of the Woodlands

On Common Ground

Past Exhibit

This exhibit has been moved into safe storage as we prepare for the new Wisconsin history center

Frontier Wisconsin

Explore the world of the first European settlers in Wisconsin. Guests can walk inside our replica lead mine, find artifacts from the first Capitol building in Madison, and travel the trails of settlers coming by wagon, boat, or train.

  • Taking Control of the Land
  • The Military Frontier
  • Fur Trade Communities
  • Land of Diversity
  • Lead Mining

The Immigrant State

Imagine yourself as an immigrant coming to Wisconsin. What would you bring? What would you remember from the country you had left? And what would change once you arrived? Explore immigrant history through the objects, ideas, and traditions that people from all over the world brought to our state.

  • Coming to Wisconsin
  • To Bring
  • To Remember
  • To Change
  • To Gather
  • Conflict

Making a Living

What do we make in Wisconsin? Or maybe the question is, what don’t we make? Delve into our many industries, past and present. Guests can view our two authentic Wisconsin-made cars; climb inside a tractor; learn about dairy, lumber, and agriculture; and check out cases full of things made in Wisconsin, from typewriters to tater tots.

  • Made in Wisconsin
  • Wisconsin at Work
  • Tourism
  • Invisible Industry/Auto Industry
  • Mechanizing Agriculture
  • Scientific Agriculture
  • Road to Dairyland
  • Heavy Industry
  • Wagon Making
  • Farm Life, Home Life
  • Diversified Agriculture
  • Wheat Farming
  • Lumbering

Gallery of On Common Ground

On Common Ground

Past Exhibit

This exhibit has been moved into safe storage as we prepare for the new Wisconsin history center

Sense of Community

Discover how people in Wisconsin gather together and build community. Grab an imaginary drink at our Cozy Nook tavern; take in a show at the circus, theatre, or magician’s stage; and explore the past and present Wisconsin State Fair. Before you leave, take in the best view of the Wisconsin State Capitol that you’ll find anywhere.

  • Meet Me at the Fair
  • On With the Show
  • Cozy Nook
  • State Fair Exhibits
  • The University Extension

Laboratory of Democracy

Wisconsin has long been a political battleground. Explore varied political movements and debates in our state including Progressivism, participation in World War I, and Women’s Suffrage. Listen to speeches from key Wisconsin political figures ranging from Robert La Follette to Joseph McCarthy to Vel Phillips. And check out our display of political buttons ranging from the 1890s to the 1990s.

  • The Political Arena
  • The Need For Reform
  • Progressivism
  • Socialism
  • Patriotism and War
  • Wisconsin and the New Deal
  • Votes for Women
  • The End of An Era: Collapse of the Progressive Party in Wisconsin

Gallery of On Common Ground