Monday, December 23, 2013

An Exciting New Year Ahead!

Recent visitors to the museum might have noticed some changes happening in the area near the stairwell.  This construction is a preliminary step in the creation of a new exhibit, one of three that will be created at the museum in the next year.

The first exhibit, which will replace our current temporary exhibit Joseph Royer:  An Architect on the Prairie, will be called Home Grown:  Gardening Yesterday and Today.  The exhibit will discuss the roots of modern gardening in the first cultivation and domestication of plants, the kitchen garden and gardening for subsistence, the Victory Garden in the 20th century, and the modern return to slow foods and heirloom gardens.  The exhibit will be showcased in the Redhed Room, our temporary display space, from March 2014 through December 2014.  More information about the garden exhibit will follow soon!

The second new exhibit, the one that has been raising some dust in recent weeks, will detail the geologic and glacier processes that created the landscape of East Central Illinois.  Plans for the exhibit include a model of a glacier, samples of fossils and glacially-modified rocks, and a sample of a sediment core taken from our own Buffalo Trace Prairie!

And possibly an ice cave!

The glacier exhibit should also premier in March of the coming year.

The final exhibit in the works is a longer-term project.  Over the next year, we will be remodeling and updating our Main Gallery Prairie Stories exhibit, as it has been in place for over a decade.  While we are hoping to keep disruptions to a minimum, there will likely be times over the next twelve months that sections of the exhibit (or perhaps the entire exhibit) will be closed to the public.

As we work through these changes, we will do our best to provide access to the Farm Tool Wing and Blacksmith's Shop.  (I'm sure many of you will be relieved to learn that, while the interpretive signs and farm tools might change a bit in phase two of our project, due to start in 2015, we have no plans at this time to redesign the blacksmith's shop). 

Our new exhibit, building on the glacier exhibit as a prologue, will detail the natural and cultural history of the region through interactive displays discussing the changing landscape, human settlement and occupation on the prairie, and how the natural features of the region contributed to the development of commerce and industry.  A special section will also feature conservation and preservation efforts at the museum and within the larger forest preserve district, with a 'workshop' area discussing how we curate various items and materials in our museum collection.

The exhibit will also include a walk-in log cabin, a walk-in general store, and (we hope!) a walk-in wigwam similar to the one in our downstairs Discovery Room.   Many familiar artifacts will be incorporated into the new exhibit, but others will go back into storage to make room for new artifacts from the collection to be put on display.

We would love to hear your thoughts about favorite artifacts in the comments section below!  Please let us know if there is a special item that you would really miss if it was put back into storage.  We can't promise to include every artifact, but we are very interested in feedback from our visitors as we make plans for the new exhibit.

If you are interested, please take a few minutes to fill out this short survey regarding your preferences in visiting a museum (only six questions!):

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cooking Up a Family Tradition: Mystery Artifact Revealed!

 As I mentioned in the first post, this object has special significance for my family, especially at this time of year!  I hope that some of you had the opportunity to come in and take a closer look at this week's Mystery Artifact, on display in a case near the museum stairwell.   If not, please come visit in the next few weeks - the object will remain on display until we close for the season on December 31st!

Lorelei and Joe were on the right track in guessing that this artifact was some sort of food mold, but Jenifer was absolutely correct in guessing that this object is a springerle press (pronounced "springer-lee").  So, Jenifer, who in your family makes springerles?

In my family, my grandmother is our springerle maker.  Her mother's maiden name was Elda Krueger, and our family's German cookie-making tradition comes from her heritage.  Springerle are traditional German Christmas cookies, usually flavored with anise seed (which tastes like black licorice) and impressed with a specially-carved rolling pin or flat mold.  You may have noticed the springerle rolling pin in our education collection while in the 1900's kitchen area of our Prairie Stories exhibit:

Springerle are unique in their creation in that after the cookies have been imprinted, recipes require they be left out to dry for 12-24 hours before baking.  This allows the dough to set, so that the pictorial impressions are not destroyed when the cookies rise during baking.   The square- or oval-shaped cookies can be painted with food dyes or tempera paints, and often were as traditionally they were used as Christmas decorations on tabletop trees.   

The molds often depict animals or pastoral scenes, although images taken from Biblical stories are also common. Antique springerle molds have become family heirlooms, and the oldest known mold dates to the 14th century. This website has a terrific library of pages detailing springerle mold collections held by private owners:

I would recommend you click through to the Mildred E. Jenson collection specifically, as it showcases three pages of beautifully carved antique molds:

For those of you wishing to try your hand making a batch of springerle cookies, here is a link to a Swiss website that offers both a springerle recipe and hand-carved replicas of antique molds (although the store portion of their website is in German, so you may need the assistance of a translator to shop):  If you wish to try springerle without investing in a mold, however, here is a company in my home state of Pennsylvania that sell both edible springerle cookies and springerle ornaments for the tree:
 If the thought of a licorice-flavored cookie does nothing for your tastebuds, they also offer lemon, orange, orange vanilla, hazelnut, chocolate, almond, and vanilla springerle.

Christmas cookies continue as a modern tradition that stretches back centuries. The first cookies were probably test cakes, baked with a small amount of the cake batter to test oven temperatures. Modern cookies have their origins in the spice trade during the Middle Ages, which allowed Europeans easier access to high-value food items including sugar and spices like cinnamon, coriander, black-pepper, and anise seed. Many traditional European Christmas cookies still include these flavors, like Dutch pfeffernüsse (“pepper nuts”) which are spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper; or my personal favorites, German zimtsterne ("cinnamon star"), which are made with ground almond or hazelnut flour instead of wheat flour, are frosted with a meringue instead of icing, and traditionally included "exotic" flavors like lemon and cinnamon (and are delightfully chewy and delicious)!

Does your family have special holiday cookie traditions?  Do you have a favorite recipe that has been passed down in your family?  Please share your traditions or favorite types of cookies and treats in the comments section below or on Facebook. 

I'll leave you with this wonderful recipe from a late-18th-century cookbook:

"On Christmas Cookery -- To three pound of flour, sprinkle a tea cup of fine powdered coriander seed, rub in one pound of butter, and one and half pound sugar, dissolve one tea spoonful of pearlath in a tea cup of milk, kneed all together well, roll three quarter of an inch thick, and cut or stamp into shape and size you please, bake slowly fifteen or twenty minutes; tho' hard and dry at first, if put in an earthern pot, and dry cellar, or damp room, they will be finer, softer and better when six months old.” 
---Amelia Simmons 
   American Cookery:  or, The Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Puff-pastes, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of Cakes, from the Imperial Plumb to plain Cake, 1796

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Very Special Mystery Artifact

This week's mystery artifact is chosen with our director, Barb Oelschlaeger-Garvey, in mind!  This particular artifact comes from my personal collection and is a family heirloom.  It also has a special connection to this time of year for me and mine.  It is made of a single piece of wood (walnut, perhaps?) with images carved on to both sides.  Here is the first side (note the amazing carving of a dragon chasing his tail in the lower right!):

 And here is the other side:

With the notable exception of the dragon, the carved images are mostly animals, plants, or other pastoral-themed pictures.

Beginning this week, we will have a display to feature each week's mystery artifact in the museum lobby/stairwell area, near the doors to the education wing.  This will allow you to take a close look at the artifact in question before making your guess!  So - now that the roads are clear! - came take a look and then make your best guess in the comments below or on Facebook!

(By the way, please excuse our construction dust and debris when you come in - there are big changes in the works here at the Museum!  I will post a blog on what you can expect to see happening over the next few years, as we change out our Prairie Stories exhibit with a new and exciting exhibit!)

    --- Valerie

Another Pressing Mystery . . . to be continued!

Alas, with the holidays and everyone's busy schedule, we had no guesses on the last mystery artifact posted in November.  Here's a reminder photo:

As no one has guessed at this fantastic artifact, I think we will hold it for a week or two and then give it another try!  In the meanwhile, stay tuned for another fascinating mystery artifact - one that is especially dear to me.  To be continued . . . .