The Mill City Museum

Review

of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on May 17, 2010, Modified on May 30, 2010

  • Description:

    The Mill City Museum may be small but it packs a big punch. It is dense, fascinating and highly effective. The massive former industrial General Mills mill ran from 1880-1965. After 25 years sitting empty, it burned down in 1991. Today’s museum has been built into, and onto, the ruins of this monumental structure. The powerful waters of the Mississippi rush past its back door, now edged with a bike path, and a historic railroad bridge still spans the gap, now a pedestrian route. The Mill City Museum is a part of this new urban infrastructure. All together, these structures and this landscape have been intelligently reshaped to be newly relevant and appealing.

    A major part of the museum experience is the building itself. This is not just reuse of an old structure, it is an attempt interpret an important industrial site. Ruins are preserved – in fact, footings were excavated to create an outdoor courtyard – and technologies such as flour dust collectors remain intact and in place.

    A series of art installations integrated into the building serve as another highly successful strategy for providing perspective about the site. My favorite is a window that looks out onto a patio and the river beyond. Each pane of glass is silkscreened with images of wheat or grain. The semi-transparent window creates a layered vision in which you see the present, the past, and the landscape itself, all within a shared frame.

    Downstairs in the building are 2 galleries, a classroom, and 2 theaters. All visitors are given a time slot for the object theater called the Flour Tower Tour. This 8-story experience is wonderful. Visitors take a seat on carpeted risers built into a giant industrial elevator. Lights go down, music comes on, and then as the elevator travels up and down you hear first person accounts recorded from interviews with former employees at the mill and see animated vignettes of life in recreations of the engine room, flour sacks arriving at the factory, commercial flour bags being prepped and sealed, the managers’ office etc. It is engrossing, fun, and surprising. In 15 minutes I came to care about the people and the town in a personal way.

    When you exit the theater visitors are invited to spend time on the 9th floor balconies. From here you get a fabulous view and panels help you compare what is visible today to what the skyline looked like during the mill’s working years.

    Another surprise is the kitchen “classroom”. When I visited, volunteers were giving out samples of sugar cookies and breadcrumbs they had just prepared on site. One visitor was looking the recipe up in a book and coping it out to take home. At a table in the corner kids were stamping cookies out of homemade play-dough.

    The volunteers were knowledgeable about food, the history of the site and the cooking industry. They explained that the space was modeled on a kitchen originally down the road where General Mills used to send samples of flour so that they could say legitimately that their flour was “kitchen tested”. They also told me that Betty Crocker was not a real person but a marketing brand! On a busy day these volunteers manage up to 400 people through the space. They used to do adult cooking classes too, but for now have stopped offering those.

    Overall the museum is clearly geared to a family audience. There are interactives throughout plus a water play area that looks at locks, and dams, and water pressure, and the river’s role in the life of the mill.

    I was moved by this place. As I sat in the Flour Tower Tour I found myself wondering at how much meaning a small bag of white flour can carry – from the industrialization of our food, to the loss of connection even to the ingredients in our food, to the social impacts of the food industry on a small town. Those are big themes to invest in a small white bag.

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