The Minnesota Historical Society was founded in 1849, the same year Minnesota became a Territory. That’s only 30 years after Fort Snelling opened (known at the time as Fort Saint Anthony) and still nine years before Minnesota became a state.
It seems odd to create a Historical Society before you have that much history to tell. That’s until you realize just how important it is to control the historical narrative and define who are the heroes and who are the villains.
One of the early Historical Society presidents was Henry Sibley, the state’s first governor. (I leaned this fact by reading the new biographical sketch the Historical Society added to Sibley’s State Capitol portrait. The new narrative notes: “Sibley was a prolific chronicler of the state history he helped make.”)
Throughout its own history, the Minnesota Historical Society has been deeply rooted in telling the white colonial story. Even in the 21st Century it has struggled to free itself from that frame.
The Historical Society’s nearsightedness — and that of the state’s political leaders — was on full display during the recent Capitol renovation. There were contentious debates about whether or not to remove controversial historic artwork with images of Manifest Destiny. The Historical Society seemed resistant to change.
At some point, I hope the Historical Society does some self reflection and creates an exhibit that examines its own history, its past leaders like Sibley, and the colonial myths that they have helped perpetuate.
For now, let’s turn to the new historical interpretive plaques the Historical Society has added to the Governors’ portraits that line the Capitol hallways. In Friday’s blog, I criticized the Historical Society for the short and sanitized biography it added to Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s Capitol portrait.
Next let’s read the new biography that accompanies Gov. Sibley’s portrait. I have fewer criticisms of this narrative than I do of Ramsey’s. It offers a more balanced story, however, there still are parts of the narrative that are troubling.