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'No water, no life': Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibit opens at Becker County Museum

The Smithsonian traveling exhibit Water/Ways will be at the Becker County Museum through April 8, as the last stop in a six-city tour of Minnesota. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)1 / 5
The Minnesota Humanities Center's "We Are Water" exhibit, which is a companion exhibit to Water/Ways, includes "water stories" told by Becker County residents including Bob Shimek, Emily Buermann, Sally Hausken, Lowell Deede and Tera Guetter. City Alderman Jamie Marks Erickson was among those who toured the exhibit during Saturday's grand opening. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)2 / 5
The Water/Ways exhibit is filled with curved panels that explore the various roles of water throughout human history and culture. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)3 / 5
The lower level of the Becker County Museum has been transformed into a Science Center where kids can play with interactive exhibits and "get their hands wet" by scooping up water bugs and water-absorbent beads. (Vicki Gerdes/Tribune)4 / 5
The Water/Ways and We Are Water exhibits at the Becker County Museum include opportunities for local residents to "Share your water story" and mark where that story took place on a map of the region. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)5 / 5

"No water, no life. No blue, no green."

These words from renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle summarize the central nature of water in human life — how it has shaped our past, our present, and even our future.

Earle's quote can be found on one of the narrative panels that comprise "Water/Ways," a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution that opened this past Saturday at the Becker County Historical Society & Museum in Detroit Lakes.

The grand opening of "Water/Ways" and its companion exhibit, "We are Water," from the Minnesota Humanities Center, brought a host of local, state and even national dignitaries to the Detroit Lakes museum to talk about the essential role of water in our lives.

"This exhibit has been at least two years in the making," said Becky Mitchell, the museum's director, in her opening remarks. "We are so, so blessed to have this opportunity here in Detroit Lakes. I really view this as kind of a launching pad for bigger and expanded, creative-thinking programming for our museum."

"The We Are Water Partnership is a partnership of the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health," said Jennifer Tonko, program director, Minnesota Humanities Center. "We're very fortunate to get to work with all of these statewide agencies that have different perspectives on what water means in our lives, why water is important and how water is so crucial for all of us. We've really done a lot of learning together, and that's a major part of our partnership.

"When I look at this exhibit," she added, "I see all the people I've been working with... I hope that each one of you as you start experiencing these exhibits start to look at them and see your neighbors in it. There are places on the statewide exhibit for people to add their own stories... I hope you take the time to add your story about why water is important to you, because that's actually why it's meaningful."

"Welcome to Detroit Lakes — this is my hometown, even though I represent a very big area," said U.S. Rep Collin Peterson. "Water is a very important resource in my district, for a lot of different reasons. We've got tremendous lakes and rivers, and resort communities, and people living on the lakes in the summertime... water is important to our farmers, and agriculture, it's a big issue over in the valley, the Red River Valley, with the diversion and all that stuff that's going on now."

Peterson added that when he got into politics in the 1970s, the U.S. government had just passed a "hugely controversial" wetlands law, and water continues to be a huge issue even in the present day.

"We don't always work together... but we've made progress in spite of all the fighting," he said, adding that he would like to see government agencies "embrace technology" and work together even more than they already have, in order to speed up the process of cleaning up the country's water resources.

A little later that morning, in the museum's basement, kids and parents gathered for the opening of the museum's Science Center, which offers a series of hands-on, water-related science activities for children.

"We really wanted to focus on children and families, and that's what most of the lower level is really about," said Emily Buermann, the museum's program director. "They come to the museum and they can't really touch stuff, but downstairs.. Touch it, move it, take pictures, take measurements, get your hands in it. It's all interactive."

The day's activities concluded that afternoon with a concert by musicians Dick Kimmel and Pamela Longtine, who entertained the audience with "Songs for a Healthy Planet," including music from Woody Guthrie, Tom Chapin, and original tunes from Kimmel and Longtine as well.

The Water/Ways and We are Water exhibits, as well as activities in the Science Center, will be open through April 8, and area school teachers have already begun reserving dates for their students to enjoy personalized tours. For the rest of us, the exhibits will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, every Tuesday through Saturday (the museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays).

There are also a variety of public activities planned in conjunction with Water/Ways this month, starting with a public tour of Detroit Lakes' wastewater treatment plant on Saturday, March 4 at 10 a.m. The tour is free and open to the public. Call the Becker County Historical Society & Museum at 218-847-2168 for more information on this and other upcoming activities at the museum, or to schedule a guided tour of the Water/Ways exhibit. More information is also available online at as well as on the museum's Facebook page.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 18-plus years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Detroit Lakes School Board. 

(218) 844-1454