History museum a ‘hidden gem’ in Vermillion
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History museum a ‘hidden gem’ in Vermillion

Beyond the Wellness Center, next to the DakotaDome, is a nondescript brown building — the W.H. Over Museum.

The museum contains oddities of local history, such as the bones of a circus elephant that escaped and was hunted down by the locals of the South Dakota territory.

“(The museum is a) repository for the natural and cultural history of the region,” Matt Sayre, a professor of anthropology, said.

Built in 1883 and a state museum until 1996, the museum not only contains local and exotic historical pieces, but also houses oddities found and donated by the local people of South Dakota.

“There have been recent projects by students in a Native Studies class to present some of the history of the treaty history and of boarding schools and the local native history over the last century,” Sayre said.

The University of South Dakota’s Anthropology Department offers classes at the museum about a variety of topics.

“(The museum is) an active place where students can take museum classes,” Sayre said.“This is a resource (students) can use.”

Aaron Mayer and Miranda Bartholomaus, graduate students of interdisciplinary studies, as well as sophomore Johnathan Suseilml, take advantage of this resource.

Mayer said he first began working at the museum in the summer of 2012 and has volunteered there since then.

“There’s all kinds of prehistoric Native American artifacts, there’s more contemporary historic beadwork, there’s natural history artifacts, a lot of natural animal exhibits,” Mayer said. “A lot of it has been collected in South Dakota and the tri-state area. My favorite exhibit is probably the bison exhibit — that or the teepee.”

Bartholomaus has been working at the museum for the past year.

“When I first started there, (they) had me inventory and catalog all of the hats. Any kind of hat except for military hats. It’s been a year later and we’re still finding hats. There’s been at least 300,” Bartholomaus said. “It’s a pretty eclectic collection.”

Bartholomaus said a collection of African animals was donated to the W. H. Over Museum this summer. The animals are a popular sight for children who visit the museum.

“A lot of the animal collections were a part of the Biology Department back when W. H. Over taught as a biologist,” Suseilml said. “It used to be in the basement of Slagle, I believe. Then it got moved over here when this building was built.”

Suseilml has been working at the museum for three semesters, building exhibits and helping to identify unknown objects.

“I really like this entire pre-settlement exhibit. I think it does a great job showing the wildlife from the region. And then we start to get to kind of the messier part of our history,” Suseilml said. “I think our museum does a pretty good job of filling in the gaps. This is an era that, at least in my high school career, wasn’t typically covered to a great extent.”

Sayre said another interesting artifact on display at the museum is an Egyptian mummy.

“(We received the mummy during) a period when many people around the world wanted to buy and sell mummies,” Sayre said. “This was before there were laws about exporting things from Egypt. At one point a donor bought a mummy from Egypt and eventually donated it to the museum.”

Occasionally the museum holds evening events when the sarcophagus is opened.

“The Egyptian sarcophagus (is my favorite). There’s a mummy in there. She’s very exotic. She’s the one who drew me to the museum,” Bartholomaus said.

Bartholomaus said the museum is not very well known by the student population. The W.H. Over Museum is completely run by donation and is free to the public. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, year-round.

“It’s just one of those hidden gems. I wish we could get more advertising out there,” Bartholomaus said. “Not only is it an awesome museum — it is a great place to volunteer.”

(Photo: Aaron Mayer, a graduate student and volunteer at the W.H. Over Museum, has been working at the museum for two years. Built in 1883, the museum houses artifacts from South Dakota’s natural history. Britney Thorns / The Volante)