NCSML – Redux

A few years ago, the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, IA was devastated by a flood.  The collection had to be saved from water damage, and the building moved to a new location.  I had been impressed with the previous iteration and was looking forward to the new version.  Ironically, I visited during a downpour.

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, IA

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, IA

The new parking garage is under the building, so I did not get wet.  The building as a whole was very well designed to provide ample space to grow.  I don’t even remember the library from my last visit.  Now, the library has plenty of room for stacks, reading tables, and a large reference desk.  Even on a dark, rainy day, the library was bright.  Researchers will be very happy in that space.  

The museum had two main exhibits and two smaller exhibits of photography and videos of the building move.  The first main exhibit is the permanent exhibit:  Faces of Freedom:  The Czech and Slovak Journey.  The exhibit recreates the steamer ship steerage sections and communist watch tours that Czechs and Slovaks endured when they escaped/immigrated to the United States.  Honestly, I was disappointed in the exhibit.  The space used is so large that I had difficulty navigating the journey.  I could “see ahead,” which dissipated some of the emotion.  

Faces of Freedom

Faces of Freedom

At the World War I museum in Kansas City, you walk through replicas of trenches and then move to an open space.  I wished I could walk through a replica of a town street with the police car, the communist watch tour, and the shop windows with the porcelain.  Or a house with the toys and music and everyday life scenes.  Then moving into the steamship and seeing the videos of the immigrant stories would have been more profound.  Large space is a blessing and a curse.  Since Faces of Freedom is a permanent exhibition, the curatorial staff may already have a game plan to refresh the space and stories over time.   

Intro panel to Celebration!  Rituals and Revelry of Life exhibition.

Intro panel to Celebration! Rituals and Revelry of Life exhibition.

The killer exhibit is the Celebration!  Rituals and Revelry of Life on loan from the National Museum of the Czech Republic.  As we saw with the Columbus Museum of Art, unique, international exhibits do come to regional and local museums.  NCSML’s mission is to connect people with Czech and Slovak history and culture, so an exhibition from a Czech Republic museum is logical.  More exciting is the length of the exhibition:  10 months.  People have plenty of time to visit and re-visit.  The exhibit itself takes you through a year of Czech and Slovak festivals with historic and current artifacts.  You can see more items in my Summer of Museums Pinterest page.  Below are an example of an artifact and a label.

St. Lucia Costume

St. Lucia Costume

 

St. Lucia Label

St. Lucia Label

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The exhibition lacked a book.  Publishing is expensive.  A small booklet summarizing the various festivals and costumes would have been nice.  My family did not celebrate all the holidays.  Traditions also adapted to America.  My dad remembered the Christmas carp in the bathtub.  When I was little, my grandparents purchased an already dead carp.  Live fish are hard to find during the midwest winter.  

Walking through a year of festivals was very enjoyable.  The combination of photographs, artifacts, and well-written labels attracted visitors and kept their attention.  You could view the exhibition multiple times and still miss something.  

Survival is an underlying theme of the museum:  the survival of the Czech and Slovak people under imperial and communist regimes, the survival of Czech and Slovak culture & language, and the survival of the museum after the great flood.  The Faces of Freedom permanent exhibition, the oral history projects, and the relationships with Czech and Slovak institutions also provide a game plan for other ethnic history museums that are struggling to remain relevant. 

 

FLW in Reverse

While the Wright Walk was my first Wright adventure of the summer, beginning with the Oak Park Home and Studio is most appropriate.  For FLW fans, this summer has overflowed with new Wright experiences:  the Laurent House in Rockford, the Johnson Research Tower in Racine, and the Inside Wright’s Studio Tour with a visit to the studio balcony.  (Sorry, no pictures.  I didn’t pop for the indoor photo pass and forgot to take a few outside shots.)

Wright used his home to solidify his architectural beliefs:  revising, reshaping, and ultimately abandoning that home and office.  During this particular visit, I was again struck by Wright’s ability to design at all eye levels.  Regardless of your height or sitting/standing position, your eyes feasted on shapes, colors, and ingenuity.  An hour exploring each room would still be insufficient time.  Cherie, our guide, pointed out the smaller details that we otherwise might have missed, like the reversed gender roles in the Native American murals in the Wright’s bedroom.

The excitement of the tour was seeing the studio balcony, previously not open to the public.  The bird’s eye view of the studio floor was entertaining; the fireplace was the only unobstructed view.  (Oh, FLW, I love your commitment to your causes.)  The hidden treasure is the ability to see the roof lines of the other wings of the house.  His evolution from a pitched roof to a flat roof was visible.  Again, even looking out the windows at the roof, the small architectural details and the art glass caught your eye.

The balcony also contained three electronic panels with information about the architects who studied with Wright – a welcome addition to the interpretation.  Our group eagerly reviewed the panels and would have loved more biographies.  Once again, Alfonso Iannelli was ignored.  The circumstances of Wright’s departure from Oak Park were also sidestepped – a common criticism of the Trust’s interpretation.  Your eyes are so busy that your brain really isn’t processing audio, which would probably delight FLW.

The New American Museum – Historic Auto Attractions

Before his circus days, PT Barnum created the American Museum in 1842.  Showcasing the marvels of nature and art, the museum burned down twice, encouraging its founder to find another outlet for his showmanship.  While visiting the Historic Auto Attractions Museum in Roscoe, IL, I felt an immediate link between the two museums.  

Located in an industrial park, the museum is actually easy to miss.  The red sign helps; you definitely need to keep your eyes peeled.

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Attractions Sign

Historic Auto Museum

Historic Auto Museum

Since I wasn’t sure about the photography policy, I don’t have any indoor shots.  I’ll share some brochure pictures below.  

The actual collection is much vaster than the name implies.  You will find automobiles, movie star memorabilia, White House furniture, television show sets and props, fashion, including original Oleg Cassini gowns, and country music memorabilia.  You can trace 19th and 20th century social and cultural history in this one space.  

The museum is organized as a spiral, which maximizes the display areas and removes the warehouse feel.  You begin with gangster cars.  Ten feet from one another are John Dillinger’s luxury bank robbing car and Bonnie & Clyde’s sad, small death car.  While books describe the gulf between the two sets of Depression-era criminals, seeing their cars resonates more deeply.

For fashionistas or decorative arts aficionados, the displays allow you to closely view the artifacts and to appreciate the craftsmanship involved.  I wish the museum would rename itself because the collection is so much broader than the name implies.

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Auto Attractions Brochure II

Dismissing the museum as a pop culture collection is a mistake.  Yes, there are some misspellings on labels, and some of the wax figures are a bit scary.  HOWEVER, the collection is impeccably maintained.  The space is spotless.  I have never been in such a clean, well-maintained museum space.  Authentication and donor letters are also displayed along side some of the objects – giving you a behind the scenes peek at how museums acquire objects.  Some letters included thank you notes for acquiring and sharing the objects.  

Historic Auto Attractions is a fun museum that will appeal to everyone in a family.  Fashion and decorative arts historians will also find treasures for their research.  Tin sign collectors will enjoy the gift shop.  Museum professionals will also find a space that challenges their truisms and believes in sharing its collection with the public.

Strings Attached at the Columbus Art Museum

Back in spring 2013, I spoke at the Business History Conference in Columbus, OH.  Of course, I investigated the local museums and was thrilled to find out about an exhibition of Czech puppets at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Puppet theatre was a way for Czechs to express their culture and traditions while under the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century.  Puppeteers could travel from town to town, sharing folk tales and traditions.  In the 20th century, puppetry evolved into animation, inspiring filmmakers like Tim Burton.

The Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague created an exhibition incorporating different types of 19th and 20th century puppets:  Strings Attached – The Living Tradition of Czech Puppets.  Columbus was the only US stop, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the exhibition.  

Classic Puppets

Classic Puppets

The puppets were used to enact classic tales from Shakespeare, the Bible, or universal folk tales like Pinocchio.

Grotesque Puppets

Grotesque Puppets

Surreal or grotesque puppets explored the fantastic aspects of Czech culture, also seen in Kafka’s writings and other art forms.

Devil Puppet

Devil Puppet

A number of devil puppets were also on display.  Remember these are devils with the small “d”, not the Biblical Devil with a capital “D”.  The pictures can’t show the detailed craftsmanship and vibrant colors in the original puppets.  The faces were incredibly evocative.  In the hands of a master puppeteer, the movements must be equally compelling.    

As to the Museum itself, I am a fan of local art museums.  The Columbus Museum of Art was surprisingly small, given Columbus’ size.  The collection is a mini-version of a large city art museum:  some Europeans, some Americans, a few Old Masters, and some photography.  The special exhibitions are the real value of the Museum, ranging from artist retrospectives to provocative themes like “In _____ We Trust, Art & Money.”  

If you are in Columbus and have one or two hours for culture, check the exhibition schedule.  The museum is located in the heart of downtown but can be tricky to find.  My cab driver had some difficulties, which is why I always travel with a map and directions.  You will have to walk a couple of blocks back to a main street to grab a cab back to your hotel. 

Summer of Museums and Wright

Yes, I know.  It’s been forever.  I was busy with school and taking care of the Big Guy in his final days.  His determined spirit is an inspiration for us all.  

Preston Working for Treats

Now we press forward with some traveling and museum/historic site visits.  Over the next few months, you can look forward to trips to Columbus, OH, Tombstone, AZ, Racine, WI, Cedar Rapids, IA, St. Paul, MN, Rockford, IL, and Roscoe, IL.  Milwaukee, WI and Springfield, IL may also pop up.  Depends on the crazy level at work and the awesomeness level of the Chicago Bears.  

In the meantime, you can enjoy a sneak preview at my Pinterest board.

Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.

 

The Brave New World of Mash-Up

On the last day of NCPH, I attended one of the last sessions:  Graphs, Maps, & Trees:  Imagining the Future of Public Interfaces to Cultural Heritage Collections.  The panelists/working group grappled with the same issues that we have been discussing all semester:  story-telling, 3D vs. 2D representations, copyright, citability, usability.  How do you tell a complex story visually?

Several of the panelists have wrestled with these issues since the heady days of the CD-ROM.  Questions have never been answered; more questions have been generated by Web 2.0.  Instead, some folks have reconciled themselves to never truly knowing the answers to the following questions:

1.  Why did a visitor come to my site?

2.  How is a visitor using my site?

3.  What are the visitor’s technical competencies?

4.  How do I know when I have finished a web/social media project?

5.  How many/what type of IT technical skills does a historian need?

6.  What are you allowed to do with online data?  (Copyright or distribution restrictions)

In the library world, best practices have evolved and are distributed via white papers or conferences.  Historians have not constructed similar mechanisms.  The panelists bemoaned the lack of research or case study sharing in the profession.  they had to look at non-history journals for guidance.  Museum personnel noted that institutional visitor studies are typically proprietary.

Since the questions above were first generated 20 years ago and have withstood technological change, the time has come to talk of many things.  Even the walrus would recognize that now is the time to actually research and then define best practices.