The reopening of the Dakota Territorial Museum has been Crystal Nelson’s baby for the past decade.
Since 2008, the executive director and curator of the historic children’s museum has worked alongside the Mead Building Committee and the Yankton County Historical Society – planning, designing, and dreaming of reopening Yankton’s first museum on the Mead Building grounds.
In December, Nelson and a team of countless others did just that, welcoming the museum’s first visitors on December 15.
It’s a journey that really began in 2007, when the museum needed more space. The opportunity to tour the Mead Building – an estate built by Dr. Leonard Mead in 1909 to house and rehabilitate patients who suffered from mental illness – presented itself, and the reset is well, history.
“We loved the grand marble staircase in the Mead Building, the historical component of it,” said Nelson. “The board decided this would be a good place for a museum and we got started right away.”
Though the museum opened its doors officially in December, exhibits will be rolled out in a series of phases, with an estimated completion of the museum’s full list of exhibits and experiences slated for 2025.
“one of the museum’s phases includes a building to accommodate a preservation and training lab. this space will be focused on the training of smaller museums, giving those small museums the resources needed to keep history in their communities.”
The first and flagship exhibit of the Dakota Territorial Museum is an exhibit called “Journeying Forward – Connecting Cultures.” It’s a look at the Lewis and Clark-led Corps of Discovery from a few different angles; that of Lewis and Clark themselves, but also a view of the events from the perspectives of the people who were here before that historic duo.
“Lewis and Clark’s arrival was not the beginning of the West,” said Nelson. “They were definitely the ones who documented it best, but there was already a civilization on the prairie when they got here. We want to look at that group of people and their experiences withe the Corps of Discovery, because it was not a positive experience for all.”
Later additions to “Journeying Forward” will also illustrate the settler side of the conversation and how, Nelson says, things went from good to bad on the prairie.
One of the museum’s largest proposed phases is the addition of a children’s transportation museum. Imagining diagrams of old cars and pictures of covered wagons? Think again.
“There aren’t just going to be small children’s toys,” said Nelson. “There will be life-sized components to the transportation museum that kids can completely interact with, climb in and out of, and fully engage with history.”
A full-size train engine, Model T car, covered wagon, boat, and plane cockpit are in the works for the transportation museum, along with costumes kids can try on to fully immerse themselves in the time period. It’s far from the sometimes-stale experience of simply reading about history in a textbook, and that’s exactly what Nelson and her team are going for.
“We want everything to be hands-on and interactive,” said Nelson. “So kids can be part history, not just learn about it.”
That vision to be part of history will translate to other phases of the ongoing Dakota Territorial museum project, maybe most notable in the “Great Dakota Boom” exhibit, a look at the life of a homesteader on the prairie through the eyes of a homesteader.
At the beginning of the exhibit, visitors will receive a card with a person from the time period, following the person through the Dakota Boom to see if they survived as a homesteader.
“Visitors will be able to make decisions, basically be this person from the Dakota Boom era,” said Nelson.
Nelson’s goal for the entirety of the Dakota Territorial Museum is experiential – for visitors to have the opportunity to learn and understand more about the cultures that existed and still exist in the Dakota Territory.
“I hope people take the time to come and visit,” said Nelson. “This is a new destination for everyone, and it’s for everyone to experience and enjoy.”
For more information, visit meadbuilding.org.
PLANNED DAKOTA TERRITORIAL MUSEUM PHASES
» Journeying Forward – Connecting Cultures exhibit
» Children’s Transportation Museum
» Great Dakota Boom Experience
» Heritage Park
» Mead Mercantile Gift Shop
» Yankton College & Alumni Education Center