‘There are many stories yet to be uncovered’: Sifting & Reckoning exhibit brings light to UW-Madison’s dark past

MADISON, Wis. — Artifacts sourced during years of work studying UW-Madison’s long history of exclusion and bigotry are now on display at the Chazen Museum of Art as part of an exhibit meant to help current generations learn from the mistakes of the past.

The exhibit, titled “Sifting & Reckoning: UW-Madison’s History of Exclusion and Resistance,” opened Monday; the exhibit runs until Dec. 23 in the Chazen’s main first-floor gallery.

Featuring items like the Pipe of Peace — an elaborately decorated pipe that students used in campus ceremonies parodying traditional Native American rituals — the exhibit explores UW-Madison’s exclusionary history ranging from building on land belonging to the Ho-Chunk Nation to the “purging” of gay students from campus in the mid-1900s.

UW-Madison’s Public History Project, which former Chancellor Rebecca Blank launched in 2019 to examine the university’s discriminatory past, eventually found that the history of hate on campus was systemic and not the work of individual bad actors.

“By uncovering our history we get a better sense of the progress that we’ve made, places that we’ve fallen short, and places where we need to focus our attention for the future,” LaVar Charleston, UW-Madison’s deputy vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, said. “So I want to acknowledge that there will be difficult aspects of this exhibit, right? That there’s episodes in this institution’s past that do not reflect well on people or organizations, or perhaps the university as a whole. But there are also powerful stories of resilience and places where students and employees showed tremendous courage and have really landed on the right side of history to help progress and move our institution forward.”

During their three years of work, undergraduate and graduate student researchers sifted through hundreds of cubic feet of archived materials like newspapers, yearbooks, letters, photos, and oral history interviews.

“Even through all of this work, the history compiled in Sifting & Reckoning is not a complete or a total history,” Public History Project Director Kacie Butcher said. “There are many stories yet to be uncovered, but it is a start. It’s a beginning for our university and taking a different look at our past.”

Butcher said she and her team had many conversations during the course of the project about the exhibit’s reception, with their biggest hope being for people to engage with the stories they see while visiting.

Chazen staff plan to host multiple events in the coming months to continue conversations about the university’s hateful past, including a conversation with the directors of the Public History Project scheduled for early October. An interactive, in-depth look at the stories and issues featured in the Sifting & Reckoning exhibit is available online at reckoning.wisc.edu.