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Friday, July 11, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair


Public Enemies exhibit opens at the Oshkosh Public Museum
Collection highlights actual history and film reproduction of Dillinger's era

View photos from the exhibit in the gallery.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy
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It hardly seems like it's been over a year since Public Enemies, opening in theaters nationwide on July 1, was filming in the streets and buildings of cities across Wisconsin. But while that time flew by for me, at least, the folks at the Oshkosh Public Museum were busy using it to compile and coordinate an impressive collection of Public Enemies-related artifacts and reproductions for a new exhibit.

The museum, half a mile from the UW-Oshkosh campus, is probably most renowned for its eight-foot tall Apostle's Clock. This ornate and intricate grandfather clock was completed in 1895 and acquired by the museum in 1948. Public schools in Oshkosh and the Fox Valley make regular trips to see this massive artifact, and rightfully so -- it is both beautiful and imposing.

As impressive as the clock is, it's not what will draw you to the museum's halls this summer. The newest exhibit, called "The Era of Public Enemies: A Wave of Crime in a Troubled Time" opened for public viewing on Saturday, June 27. The collection spans two floors of the museum and presents a blend of reproductions, set props from the filming of the movie, and authentic 1930s pieces both owned by the museum and on loan from collections across Wisconsin and beyond.

Themes separate each section of the exhibit, with the initial emphasis placed on the "community-curated" section that includes amateur photography and keepsakes from the Public Enemies set in Oshkosh. Other areas highlight the imbalance of firepower between lawmakers and lawbreakers, the impact of the V-8 engine on criminal enterprise during the era and a fully decorated bar to recreate the nightlife of the Dirty Thirties. (Non-alcoholic cocktails were served from the bar for the member opening, and I was told that museum staff are considering doing so again for the general public.)

The firearms, some of which are on loan from collections in Madison, are an abrupt reminder of why crime prospered when it did; the cops had their privately-owned deer rifles and shotguns, while the robbers had tommy guns and other automatic weapons. But the items that fascinated me were the Junior G-Man pieces. To persuade kids to follow the footprints of FBI agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale in the movie) instead of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, of course), a wide variety of toys, games, and kits were manufactured. A yellow tin, law enforcement-branded tommy gun, fingerprint kit and board game are some of the highlights.

News reports from April 2008 indicated that Universal Studios broke tradition and gave permission for the museum to retain certain large, manufactured props like a massive Walgreen's sign. Noting the absence of these pieces, I asked museum director Brad Larson about them. Turns out, Universal decided they were creating an unwieldy precedent, and asked for the large props back last September. Clearly disappointed but staying positive, Larson admits that the exhibit "called for more, but we got what we got." Props and pieces signed by Depp are no small potatoes.

Early word of mouth on the exhibit is strong and wide-ranging. Larson has received comments of anticipation from as far away as Cable, Wisconsin -- some 250 miles from Oshkosh. Closer to home, the members-only opening drew over 200 visitors, rather than the usual 60-75 of other exhibits. For "The Era of Public Enemies," the guests wanted to stay later than the 8 p.m. closing time. And the cocktails didn't even have booze!

Larson remarked that there are "a lot of parallels between creating a movie set and creating a museum exhibit." Director Michael Mann is known for obsessing over little details like making sure that newspapers not even shown on-screen are era-specific; the staff at the Oshkosh Public Museum have similarly done more than just dress their volunteers in costume -- although that's a nice touch, too. My advice: try your aim at the Airsoft Tommy Gun shooting gallery, or maybe just pick up one of the phones in the bar.

An easy shot northeast of Madison, Oshkosh will cost you less than a tank of gas. Admission to the museum is $7 for adults, $3.50 for children ages 6-17, and free for the 5-and-under set. Gangsters from the stateline area routinely made the trip to northern Wisconsin hideaways; make your trip north for the Public Enemies exhibit before the show closes on October 18.

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