This week the new Kensington Rune Stone Park Visitors Center opened in Minnesota to tell the story of the Kensington Runestone, the controversial inscribed slab uncovered in the nineteenth century bearing a runic inscription. (The building signage puts a space between “rune” and “stone,” but the park’s website does not.) Outside of Minnesota, the broad consensus remains that the object is a Victorian hoax created by Scandinavian immigrants, but within the region where the object was found it has a dedicated group of true believers who hold it to be proof that Scandinavians explored the interior of the future United States a century before Columbus opened the Americas to European penetration. The Visitors Center, designed in consultation with Rune Stone advocate and fringe history speculator Scott Wolter, falls squarely into the latter camp.
The Visitors Center is located in Douglas County on the site of the Ohman family farm where the Runestone was unearthed in 1898, and all five county commissioners showed up on Wednesday to cut the ribbon opening the attraction, which cost around a million dollars to build. More than $800,000 in funding was provided through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, which apportions funding to the Minnesota Historical Society to support Minnesota’s cultural heritage. The remaining $200,000 came from county taxpayers.
The park superintendent who oversaw construction, Brad Bonk, received a gubernatorial appointment to the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission in December, giving him influence over future Legacy Amendment allocations.
The Visitors Center is more than just a Runestone museum. The Runestone exhibit comprises the “interpretative room,” but the rest of the structure is meant serve as a public space, including a communty room that can be rented for events and public bathrooms. Long term plans include restoring the park land, including the farmhouse where the Ohman family lived, to its original 1890s condition.
“There’s a lot of people in our county that are new people in the community that don’t know much about the Vikings and the Runestone and where they found it,” commissioner Charlie Meyer said. “Now there’s no excuse for not finding out the information with the interpretive center here.”
The trouble is what found its way into the interpretive room, and Meyer’s offhand endorsement of Norse colonization of Minnesota indicates the strength of belief in parts of Minnesota. The room is decorated in Scandinavian motifs and, according to no less an authority than Scott Wolter, omits skeptical perspectives on the Runestone. When asked if the displays offered skeptical views, Wolter replied:
Of course not silly, there is no credible pushback against the KRS inscription today. All the objections geologically, historically, linguistically, runologically, grammatically, and dialectically have all been addressed. The artifact has been proven to be medieval and it’s done.
Wolter attended the opening and shared his thoughts on his blog. He was happy to see that the cornerstone of his fringe theories, the so-called Hooked X, had a prominent place in the Runestone exhibit: “One thing that especially pleased me was to see thee (sic) Hooked X in the interpretive displays. Some people wanted the Hooked X and some of the other controversial symbols eliminated from the displays, but fortunately, Brad [Bonk] and other consultants chose to keep the runic displays true to the symbols found on the artifact.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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