Built By the River

Detroit Historical Society
Detroit, MI

In 2009, the Detroit Historical Society began a five-year fundraising campaign to renovate and reinterpret the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Built By the River represents a new vision for the museum that uses new research and exhibition techniques to focus on the area’s maritime history.

The renovation helped the Society address several strategic issues. First, the museum’s core permanent exhibition was decades old, with several components dating to the museum’s opening in 1960. Second, the exhibit lacked an overall focus and narrative, instead consisting of small sections dedicated to various topics including ecology, geography, industry, amusement, recreation, and ship models. Lastly, the permanent exhibition relied completely on didactic panels and objects in cases with no interactive components.

An advisory committee of maritime historians, community members and leaders, educators, and volunteers worked to determine the key themes for the new main exhibit. The committee also identified the exhibition’s target audience of families visiting the Belle Isle park. The design ensured the exhibit was accessible to visitors of all ages, learning styles, and mobility levels. A universal goal was to limit word counts on text panels to keep them concise, and to maximize the use of objects, images, and media. Hands-on activities include: a ship’s steering wheel, a replica canoe, touchable animal pelts and a wearable deer-skin jacket, boat building, knot tying and other team-related activities, and a mock “speedboat” where visitors can experience racing on the river. Through sections on place, early development, economics and industry, and recreation, this exhibit helps visitors understand the importance of the river and geography to Detroit’s development, and the changing role of its waterways.

In the past year, visitation at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum increased by 89%. The Belle Isle community has rediscovered the Museum as an educational and recreational destination preserving the essential stories of Detroit’s heritage.