Tracking Your Past

When the Wisconsin Historical Society invited its members to tour the new State Archive Preservation Facility, all available slots quickly filled. History lovers flocked to Madison for a behind-the-scenes view of the $46.7 million, world-class facility.

Reading about the 188,000-square-foot building doesn’t prepare you for its immensity. Stretched along a berm above the Yahara River between East Washington Avenue and Williamson Street, the facility stands on five acres once used for state vehicles, mailing and printing services. Approved for funding in 2013, the facility also preserves artifacts from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, as well as state records. The building comprises a two-floor front section and a four-floor rear section where the Veterans Museum stores heavy artifacts (think cannons) on the first floor.

From a Harley Davidson motorcycle to fragile folk art Easter eggs to an Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, the facility preserves it all. Among the treasures, visitors glimpsed antique wooden chairs, a Big Boy statue from a once popular restaurant, and H. H. Bennett’s collapsible field darkroom.

Many items are moving from the basement of the Historical Society’s headquarters, a space filled with overhead pipes and plastic sheeting to protect from water leaks. Movers are packing and transporting more than 500,000 artifacts, 200,000 books and 55,000 archival boxes containing millions of document pages.

Featuring a conservator lab and seven HVAC zones, the building offers microclimates suitable for film, textiles, paper, and other materials. A freezer set at minus 22 degrees can kill pests and mold. On tour day, it contained a buffalo robe decorated with pictographs. A transition room brings items back to a more normal temperature slowly, to prevent condensation.

The facility provides space for Native American collections of arrowheads, pottery and other artifacts from Wisconsin tribes, as well as an outdoor area for ceremonies related to some of these items.

Except for occasional tours, the facility is closed to the public. Not a museum, the building is a safe to preserve state history.

Yet this safe is far more accessible than the spaces it replaces. When a genealogist needs to see a book, it will be pulled and taken to the Historical Society or Veterans Museum. Stored by size on trays and shelves, the 200,000 books can be quickly found using bar codes. A historian wanting to study larger items will go to the new facility by appointment.

This improved accessibility is like “democratizing the collection,” according to Christian Overland, Historical Society director. The new facility also permits collections growth, as Wisconsin state and family history continues to be written.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery.” Visit https://dorisgreenbooks.com.