Image of the We are Water Exhibit

Water touches all aspects of life in our state, including health, industry, and recreation. Even the name Minnesota—from a Dakota word meaning "land where the water reflects the sky”—demonstrates the importance of water in our lives. It is this deep connection that inspired an unlikely partnership of state agencies and six local communities to create We Are Water MN, a traveling exhibition that celebrates Minnesota’s love affair with water and engages residents in caring for this precious resource.

Between 2015 and 2017, the partner agencies—including the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Minnesota Historical Society—worked together with six local communities to create the traveling exhibition. It visited each host community, including Detroit Lakes, Lanesboro, St. Peter, Spicer/New London, Red Wing, and Sandstone for six weeks. 

The exhibition also partnered with the Smithsonian as part of its national Museum on Main Street program, and included a companion exhibit, Water/Ways, which examines the practical and spiritual role of water worldwide and in American society.

Jennifer Tonko, Program Officer, Community Engagement and Traveling Exhibits at the Minnesota Humanities Center, explained that the success of the exhibition derives from the collective expertise of the partners. “Our museum partners have wonderful experience with exhibits and they have reach throughout the state. Our science partners teach us what happens when people do ‘X’ to water. Humanities teaches us why that matters. It goes beyond just keeping people safe and healthy. People express those other reasons through the humanities.”

Each exhibit had unique elements, but all of them shared information interactively, collected personal stories about community members’ relationships with water, and inspired visitors to commit to taking action. The Improve Group conducted an evaluation of the visitor experience and found that 4 out of 5 visitors surveyed (83%) said they were more knowledgeable about water issues after attending the exhibit.

The evaluation helped to refine and inform ongoing development of the exhibition as it traveled from place to place. You can view all of the findings from our Visitor Experience Evaluation here!

“One exciting thing about doing this kind of evaluation is that the earlier host sites were able to discover in real time what was working and what needed improvement,” said Kylie Nicholas, Senior Research Analyst at The Improve Group. “We were giving feedback to the next site so that they could use it to inform their planning and design.”

Ultimately, We Are Water MN hopes to engage more residents throughout the state in taking care of our water. “We have been thinking about ways to keep people involved,” said Tonko. “We are not just giving out information, but helping people find themselves in the exhibit, and then hopefully taking action.”

Missed the exhibition? You’re in luck! We Are Water MN will be doing another tour August 2017-June 2018. The tour kicks off at the State Fair, so be sure to check it out at the Eco Experience building, and share your water stories with the rest of the state.