Much to learn: The Smithsonian Institution’s traveling Water/Ways exhibit is currently on display at the Antheneum Visitors Center in New Harmony, shown here. It will come to West Terre Haute next week and remain on display at the Vigo County School Corp. Conference Center from Nov. 20 to Jan. 2, and will feature a companion exhibit, “Pearls of the Wabash,” from Wabash Valley Riverscape. Image courtesy Jane Santucci
Much to learn: The Smithsonian Institution’s traveling Water/Ways exhibit is currently on display at the Antheneum Visitors Center in New Harmony, shown here. It will come to West Terre Haute next week and remain on display at the Vigo County School Corp. Conference Center from Nov. 20 to Jan. 2, and will feature a companion exhibit, “Pearls of the Wabash,” from Wabash Valley Riverscape. Image courtesy Jane Santucci
It could be a fishing story. A raft ride long ago. An old-time song. A job at a riverside factory. Teenage memories of a Fairbanks Park festival, picnic or concert. A legend, good or bad.

Whatever the source of inspiration, the Wabash River still can bring the Terre Haute community together in unmatched ways.

The multi-faceted, yearlong 2013 Year of the River celebration stands as a prime example. Groups that had never interacted before teamed up to highlight their link to the famed river. Wabash Valley residents got to know each other better through a shared fondness for the river. Spinoff projects from the Year of the River, led by Wabash Valley Art Spaces, continue to benefit the community.

Eight years later, the Wabash could again generate a bit of unity. Heaven knows, it's needed.

"Water/Ways," a traveling exhibit crafted by the Smithsonian Institution, begins a six-week stay in West Terre Haute inside the Vigo County School Corp. Conference Center from Nov. 20 through Jan. 2.

It's part of the renowned Smithsonian's "Museum on Main Street" program, aimed at giving small-town Americans a chance to experience the institution without having to travel to Washington, D.C. Indiana Humanities selected six small Hoosier towns to serve as sites for the exhibit. Wabash Valley Riverscape, a nonprofit aimed at enhancing the riverfront, offered to host "Water/Ways" in West Terre Haute, the heart of the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area. Indiana Humanities said yes.

Riverscape relies on volunteers, yet the organization has assembled a full schedule of water-oriented activities throughout the exhibit's six-week stay. "It's a big undertaking even if you have a full-time staff," said Megan Telligman, Indiana Humanities director of programs. "And to see what Riverscape's done with it is amazing."

"Water/Ways" depicts the environmental, cultural and historic importance of water to the planet. For this community, the Wabash River embodies the critical value of waterways. So, the Smithsonian exhibit will feature companion exhibits, as well as related events, all with a Wabash twist.

Riverscape's companion exhibit "Pearls of the Wabash" will detail the legacy of freshwater mussels from Terre Haute's stretch of the river. The exhibit will explain the Native Americans using them for food and as tools, the artistic "Shell Chapel" on the Sisters of Providence campus at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the overharvesting of mussels to make buttons in the early 20th century, and the mollusks' recent reemergence in the Wabash. The recollections of surviving "musselers" will be featured on Riverscape's YouTube channel.

"We're telling the story around mussels," said Jane Santucci, a Riverscape consultant. Visitors to the exhibits will learn the history of the Wabash in the process.

"I'm really hoping this gives them a look at what was here, and what is here," Santucci added.

Riverscape has also scheduled a series of 14 talks at the West Terre Haute branch of the Vigo County Public Library. Sixteen speakers will take turns expounding on mussels, wildlife, wetlands, environmental concerns and other river-based subjects.

Museums across the river in Terre Haute will offer river-driven displays. The Swope Art Museum will feature an artistic "Pearls of the Wabash" exhibit containing nearly 60 pieces by more than a dozen artists from the River City Art Association. The artwork will involve a river connection, such as Todd Stokes' abstract, hand-cut glass etching of riverbanks and flooding.

Art "helps [a viewer] to realize the importance of water and the Wabash River to Terre Haute, whereas in the past it had been forgotten," said Stokes, the art group's vice president.

Like thousands of Hauteans, Stokes has rich memories of the Wabash. His grandfather used to take Stokes and kids in the family to watch speed-boat races on the river in the early 1960s. On those outings, his grandfather also would eagerly drink from an artesian well at Fairbanks Park, trying unsuccessfully to get the youngsters to take a sip of the odd-smelling water.

"That's one of my favorite river memories," Stokes said.

All the activities surrounding the Smithsonian traveling exhibit can rekindle such memories, and interest in the Wabash's water quality and future enhancements. The long-needed pedestrian walkway over the river's wetlands between West Terre Haute and Terre Haute — a $6.1-million safety and recreation gem — is a prime example of positive changes. So is the revival of the river's mussels, a creature that requires clean water to survive and thrive.

"We want to get people engaged in our river," said Michael Shaw, Riverscape's president. "The Wabash River has been improving for years, and we want to show that. ... The water quality improvement allows the mussels to grow."

A network of groups and volunteers will help Riverscape oversee "Water/Ways" and the related events, including kids programming on the weekends. Docents will answer visitors' questions. An Indiana State University fraternity will help install the exhibit at the VCSC Conference Center. Experts and historians from ISU, Rose-Hulman, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and Ivy Tech will lead the speakers series, arranged by the West Terre Haute library crew. West Vigo High School students built a bike rack for the pedestrian walkway and will install it next Thursday, just in time for visitors to ride bicycles to see the Smithsonian exhibit.

Santucci and fellow Riverscape member Susan Dolle traveled to another historic Wabash River town, New Harmony in southern Indiana, to help install the Smithsonian exhibit at the iconic Antheneum Visitors Center there in late September. They and others repeat that process when the exhibit arrives in West Terre Haute on Tuesday.

"Hopefully enough people will be coming together so we can learn more about our community," Santucci said.
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