Western Heritage Center Receives Museum Innovation Award | Local News
The Mountain-Plains Museum Association is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2021 MPMA Awards. Established in 1953, the MPMA is a regional museum association that provides services to museum professionals in ten states: Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. MPMA is one of six regional associations in the United States that work in conjunction with the American Association of Museums.
The Western Heritage Center in Billings is a leader in developing relevant and original exhibits that highlight marginalized and ignored voices in regional history and as such was selected to receive the Leadership Award and of innovation 2021 of the MPMA.
The mission of the Western Heritage Center is to collect, preserve, and tell the stories of the people and places of the Yellowstone River Valley and the Northern High Plains region. The center operates an innovative and robust exhibition program dependent on original research, in-depth oral histories, and active community partnerships. A team of three full-time people develops five to seven new, relevant and engaging exhibitions each year highlighting marginalized and ignored historical voices.
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The Western Heritage Center strongly believes in the importance of using primary and contemporary sources in every exhibit, and staff recognize the responsibility and need for self-representation in every story. To do this, the WHC actively collects oral histories, photographs, and primary documents relating to these stories, many of which are simply lacking in scholarship and interpretation. Recent exhibits such as The Southsiders, Saints & Sinners: Women Breaking Tradition, and Baá Hawassiio & Ènomóhtåhéseh: Healthcare on the Crow & Northern Cheyenne Reservations exemplify these efforts by presenting new stories covering previously underrepresented historical themes.
For example, when developing the gallery exhibition The Southsiders in 2017, WHC partnered with Healthy by Design, a community collaboration to promote and provide healthy choices and revitalize the community. Historically, the Southside of Billings has been home to a rich culture representing a diverse community, including immigrants and people of color. However, this neighborhood was vastly underrepresented in community discourse and museum collections. Through this partnership, the WHC collected seventeen oral history recordings and numerous photographs and documents, much of which were in the exhibit space.
This exhibit continues to uplift neighborhood residents, who are eager to hear and tell their own stories, and inspires the community with hitherto hidden achievement and excellence. It is also frequently recommended for educational use, as it is open access and expands representation in the classroom story. The project expanded in 2021 as exhibit items were used to develop historic walking tours, podcasts and other community-focused events, including sidewalk poetry submitted by residents . The exhibit continues as an interactive online space that mixes exhibit panels with photographs and recordings of these historically marginalized groups. The online exhibit can be viewed at https://www.ywhc.org/exhibit/the-southsiders/.
The 2021 exhibition, Baá Hawassiio & Ènomóhtåhéseh: Healthcare on the Crow & Northern Cheyenne Reservations continues this type of work. Drawing on the nearly 280 Indigenous oral histories collected through the American Indian Tribal Histories Project at WHC as well as interviews with current tribal leaders in health and community history , the exhibit explores the difficult history of health care and healing on the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations. Highlights include a discussion of health care as an assimilative practice, non-consensual sterilization practices, the effects of poor sanitation on the health of reservations, and stories of “health heroes” such as Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, RN.
The story continues the narrative of growing self-determination that inspired Indigenous peoples to demand better conditions and to blend traditional beliefs with Western medical practices in the face of legal threats and apathetic officials. The exhibit introduces the concept of generational historical trauma, a relatively new term to our audience, and connects how it has a tangible impact on history and modern life, particularly through public health. Baá Hawassiio & Ènomóhtåhéseh: Healthcare on the Crow & Northern Cheyenne Reservations is the only exhibit of its kind in the region and has attracted the attention of many medical organizations, as well as educators and social scientists.
WHC’s exhibition efforts continue to draw attention as out-of-town guests express surprise and excitement at the depth and coverage of each space. Residents of the local community are also impressed with the diversity and relevance of each exhibit as they discover untold stories from neighbors and friends.