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The Forgotten Cave of Beloit College

BELOIT, WI– As I walked down the steep steps leading to a closed exhibit in the Logan Museum of Anthropology, fluorescent lights illuminated roughly painted arrows pointing down the stairs. Replications of prehistoric cave paintings lined the walls. I felt the cold, moist air surrounding me as I continued down the stairs. A room opened up when I reached the bottom. There stood a stone opening with a cave mural painted above it. The exhibit, which has now been closed for 27 years, is often referred to as the “cave” by those who know of it on campus.

Few students on campus are even aware of this incredible interactive learning exhibit that used to be operational inside the Logan Museum. When asked if he had ever seen the cave, Ian Jacobs ’22 said, “I didn’t even know we had a cave. Why didn’t anyone tell me we had a cave?” This mystery surrounding the cave has led students such as Jacobs to question: What exactly is the cave? And why don’t more students know about it?

The cave was constructed in the basement of the Logan Museum, as shown in the image above. It was built in 1930 to exhibit a cast of the clay bison found in the Cave of Tuc d’Audoubert in France. The bison cast was molded by Magdalenian artists about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. There exists only one other similar group of casts in the country according to a letter written on April 10, 1930, by George Lucius Collie, the Logan Museum curator at the time. 

The current director of the Logan Museum, Nicolette Meister, explains just how significant obtaining the cast was. “When Logan bought the casts, we were one of two museums who got them, so it was a pretty big deal to even have them.” This made the exhibit extremely popular when it was open.

The cave was a big attraction for the museum for about 15 years after it was opened in May of 1930. Then, in 1945, some visitors of the museum destroyed the exhibit leaving the cast of the bison in pieces.  According to the Beloit Daily News, the cave was closed and the pieces of the bison were placed in a storeroom after the incident.

About nine years later, students managed to restore the bison cast and the cave. This was advertised as the Collie Paleolithic Room and reopened. Cave paintings were also replicated and added to the walls and ceiling of the exhibit. It was then open until 1973 when it was closed for two years due to moisture damage and was opened again after repairs. 

Moisture issues had been an issue in the cave since it’s construction. Right before the reopening, Collie wrote in a letter to Frank Logan on April 25, 1930, “As yet, the cave is quite damp and I am trying to figure out a means of getting circulation of air so that it will be drier.” Collie proposed that an electric heater and fans should be placed in the cave for a few hours a day when guests were not visiting, but it is unclear whether this method was used after it’s reopening in 1954. 

After the cave reopened in 1975, an addition to the exhibit referred to as the “Caveman Exhibit” was added. Edson Way, the former director of the Logan Museum, stated his involvement with the exhibit. “As director of the Logan [Museum] from about 1979 to 1985, I built the ‘caveman’ to add to the basement exhibit area.” Henry Moy ’77 further said that the exhibit, also known as, “The ‘Neanderthal Hunters’ were the early homo sapiens built from JCPenney mannequins from Idabel mall.” This exhibit continued to attract visitors until the cave ultimately closed in 1992.

Cave paintings can be viewed along the walls of the exhibit. These buffalo paintings are seen
closest to the entrance of the cave.

This picture shows the cave located in the basement of the Logan Museum, accessed from the foyer of the museum. This picture, taken on December 5, 2019, shows the current state of the once-popular exhibit.

If the cave holds so much historical value to the school, then why isn’t it open anymore? 

According to Director of the Logan Museum, Nicolette Meister, the cave is no longer operational due to “ADA requirements, which means the cave would need to be accessible for everyone since it is open to the public.” 

Moy further explained in addition to ADA requirements, there were also issues with the air quality. “We closed the exhibit due to non-compliance with ADA accessibility regulations, and the inability to calculate oxygen replenishment figures due to the porous nature of the cistern’s limestone blocks.” Meister also mentioned that another factor which led to the cave’s closing is the fire hazards it presents since there is only one way into and out of the cave.

When asked if there is a possibility that the cave could be renovated to meet these standards and reopen it to the public, Meister said, “Bill Green looked into it when he was here but the plan proposed would require another opening to be dug with the mounds in the surrounding area.” Because of this, Meister stated, “The plans would be costly and would risk disturbing the mounds.”

When asked about these plans, Former Director of the Logan Museum, Bill Green stated in an email, “The high cost (over $200,000 as far as I recall) was one of the reasons we didn’t proceed with the project.” 

According to proposed plans to bring the exhibit back written in 2004 by Engberg Anderson Design Partnership Inc, there were three main proposed options to renovate the existing cave to meet current standards. “One: Maintain the existing cave while providing necessary modifications to meet current code. Two: Maintain portions of the existing cave and supplement the cave with new access paths. Three: Demolish the existing cave and reestablish the cave exhibit.” However, each of these options proved to have their disadvantages and would be costly as Green previously said.  

“The way I view the cave is as a novelty,” Meister said. “In a way, it is an artifact of its time.” Meister also said that in the past, museums had exhibits like these but do not typically have them anymore due to issues of accessibility. “There are other ways we could potentially display the collection of the cave,” Meister said

Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the bison cast will be put on display anytime soon. According to Meister, the bison casts are currently stored in the museum’s storage room and “are in poor condition”. This is because the casts had to be broken out of place after the cave exhibit was uninstalled in 1992.

Many current students who are aware of the cave on campus such as myself, have been introduced to the cave thanks to Associate Professor of Anthropology Shannon Fie. Fie often takes her class “Archaeology: Lessons from the Past” down to the cave as part of the curriculum. When asked what made her decide to bring her students there, Fie said, “Because of the reactions I get from students. It reminds them of the museum’s long history.”

The cave has not only had a strong impact on current students who have seen it, but also one of many alumni and members of the community who visited the cave while it was still open.  “Even when we get visitors now, they come in with their grandchildren wanting to show them the cave,” Meister said. “They have such fond memories of the cave and they always ask why it closed.”

Karrie Porter Brace ’89 recalled her experience with the cave. “I had an incredible memory of going deep into the earth and seeing the wet limestone, the paintings on the wall, the stone tools, and in the deepest part of the cave, the wounded bison. It was so dark, the only light was from a simulated campfire,” she said. This realistic nature of the cave is what excited the children who visited it. Alumni Sarah Way Quiroga ’94 said that for her, “It was spooky and cool for a professor’s kid to visit.”

According to the proposed plans to bring the exhibit back written in 2004, the cave was such a huge attraction for kids that elementary schools in the surrounding area would often visit. Linda Appleby ’83 was one of the many students who visited the cave through one of the schools. “In elementary school in the mid-1960’s we would have a class field trip to the Logan every year,” Appleby said. 

Since so many were attached to the cave, students were sad to see it close. Caroline Vuyadinov’90 stated, “It was closed the Summer I worked there in 1989. I had to keep folks out. Many were disappointed. People were attached to the memories and were sad they couldn’t relive them.” Even current students such as Jacobs are disappointed that the cave is not currently open. “I would visit the cave every day if it were open,” Jacobs stated.

When asked if she thought the college would benefit from reopening the cave exhibit Fie said, “I think it would be beneficial to repurpose that space in a new idea, being mindful of inclusivity.” Fie and Miester explained that the means of the cave’s initial construction had a Eurocentric perspective on archaeology and because of this, it was focused on the idea of Neanderthals originating in Europe. 

Leslie Williams, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, also explained the prevalence of this Eurocentric view. “Neanderthals were found in Europe and I imagine anthropologists of the 1930s thought they originated there, said Williams. “I think the cave was in part Eurocentric also because of the more widely known cave art in Europe during this period.”

If the cave were to reopen it is important to keep this idea in mind and represent the exhibit more inclusively. In addition to the renovations that would be required for the cave to meet the previously mentioned codes, the museum would also need to confront the Eurocentric stigma and historical inaccuracies that the cave has by including a display discussing the issue. The exhibit should also include a display that debunks the ‘caveman’ stereotype.

While renovating and changing the display of the exhibit will undoubtedly be a difficult and expensive project, students like Nguyen Huynh ’22 believe that the cave is an important part of the museum that should be shared. “I think it will be worth it in the long run,” Huynh said. 

As of today, there are no plans to renovate or reopen the cave exhibit. During my last visit, I heard bats flying deep within the cave and moisture still seems to be an issue. The cave has now been closed for 27 years and it seems that the cave exhibit will remain a story of the past.

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