Diving Deep Into History at Grand Rapids Public Museum

Currently on display at Grand Rapids Public Museum now through September 3 are three captivating new exhibits, delving into the intriguing world of the most recent North American Ice Age, highlighting the significance of snow, and offering a thought-provoking exhibition examining the troubling legacy of the Jim Crow era.

In Ice Age: Michigan’s Frozen Secrets, you’ll marvel at the bones from the recently discovered Clapp Family Mastodon. Discovered during a Kent County Drain Commission project on the Clapp family’s property just north of Kent County, the mastodon is estimated to be 13,210 years old. The Clapp family donated the bones to the museum at a time when the exhibits team was, coincidentally, preparing for the ice age exhibit. While most of the bones are still undergoing a drying process, which is a process that takes at least a full year, a selection of the bones was specially curated for display during the drying process to allow a way for visitors to connect with a time almost too distant to conceive.

Dustin Tyler, Vice President of Marketing and PR for the museum, says this exhibit is especially appealing to families. “The exhibit provides visitors with unforgettable educational experience and inspires curiosity about Michigan’s prehistoric past and the impact of the ice age had on early-paleo hunters and the fauna of the epoch,” said Tyler.

In tandem with Ice Age is Snow: Tiny Crystals, Global Impact. As its name implies, the exhibit has an educational component; it’s designed both to inspire and to teach. Attendees can experience a simulated, fully immersive digital snowstorm, “giant interactive snow crystals,” design snowflakes, and listen to oral histories from Indigenous people about snow. 

“It showcases the ways that snow is fundamental to weather patterns on Earth,” Tyler said. “It impacts us no matter where we live. All freshwater runoff comes as a result of snowfall and glacial runoff.” Without it, he said, we would be a runaway greenhouse like Venus. While the exhibit is designed to entertain, it’s also meant to inspire an appreciation of the complexity and importance of snow.

While the two exhibits mentioned above are appropriate for all ages, Overcoming Hateful Things: Stories from The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery is not recommended for anyone twelve years of age or younger, and anyone under seventeen needs to be accompanied by an adult due to the mature themes, language, and painful imagery from our country’s past. 

Overcoming Hateful Things is a new traveling exhibition from Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery. The Grand Rapids Public Museum is the first museum in the world to host this powerful traveling exhibition. It draws off racist caricatures and imagery and aims to provide a safe place to have the uncomfortable conversations needed about race and racism in our country, and it contextualizes the dreadful impact of Jim Crow laws. The exhibition hopes the use of these objects of intolerance help to teach tolerance and promote a more just society. 

Tyler said, “Some might argue that these racist artifacts should be taken out of circulation, but the intentions of the exhibit’s creator, Dr. David Pilgrim, is to highlight not only how African-Americans were treated during the Jim Crow era, but the fact that we’re still living in the shadow of Jim Crow today. It’s meant to serve as a way for people to reflect and to begin to heal.”

Since its opening, group scheduling for corporate, church, and other groups have been highly popular for DEI initiatives. The museum encourages organizations to utilize the exhibition to facilitate the necessary discussions about race and race relations. Regardless of who attends, Tyler said, the goal is to “witness, understand, and heal. We must learn from our past, so we don’t repeat it.”

Ice Age: Michigan’s Frozen Secrets, Snow: Tiny Crystals, Global Impact & Overcoming Hateful Things: Stories from The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery are open now through September 3, 2023.

In addition to their robust traveling exhibit schedule, don’t miss the GRPM original exhibit that draws from some 10,000 fashion pieces in the museum’s permanent collection for Fashion + Nature. Fashion has always taken inspiration from nature, not least in the materials used; in 1904, for instance, an estimated 11.4 million buttons were made of mussel shells, a trend that only increased in later years. The exhibit explores that fact, as well as the fashioning of beaver pelts into hats, the incorporation of iridescent beetles into garment embellishments, and more.

Beyond its entertainment value and stunning garments on display, the exhibit has interactive components with a lot of hands-on activities for any age group. Fashion + Nature is about all the ways in which the fashion industry has exploited the natural world, and about those designers working to create more sustainable practices to curb this trend. The exhibition has been such a success; other museums have asked whether the GRPM’s original exhibit might tour in the future. You don’t want to miss it! 

Grand Rapids Public Museum
272 Pearl St. NW, Grand Rapids