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. 

 

Advertisements

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. 

NCPH Poster Preview

My poster Grave Markers as Protest Symbols:  Using Cemeteries to Interpret the Intra-Ethnic Conflicts of Chicago’s Bohemian Immigrants has been selected for the April 2012 NCPH poster sessionThe full conference schedule will be posted in early December.  Here is a sneak preview of the poster — using different trees.  Don’t want to give away too much.

Limestone tree grave makers allowed people to memorialize their ideals and philosophies on their graves.  These grave markers also preserve the intra-ethnic conflict between Catholic and Freethinker Bohemians. After the Catholic Church denied burials in Catholic cemeteries to Catholic Bohemians whose families had Freethinkers, the outraged Freethinkers founded their own cemetery.  The Freethinkers allowed people to personalize their grave markers with secular and/or religious symbols. The Catholic grave markers emphasized a person’s religious devotion and utilized crosses.  The limestone trees in Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery remind present day visitors of this old conflict.

Let’s interpret the following example from Bohemian National Cemetery, the Prinz Family Tree:

BNC Limestone Tree

Common to all limestone trees is the broken branch at the top – symbolizing a life cut short.  The trees also have a space in the center where the bark is ripped off the tree to expose a spot for engraving the names of the interred.  The Prinz family tree contains five key symbols:  acorns, ivy, clasped hands, wheat sheaf, and mushrooms.  All but the mushrooms have secular and religious meanings.  The mushroom is significant to Bohemians as a symbol of ethnic pride.  If you are Bohemian, you understand the irrational love of the mushroom.  For the non-Bohemians in the crowd, we all have our quirks.

Clasped hands represent marriage if the sleeves are masculine and feminine or heavenly welcome if both sleeves are masculine.  These sleeves appear to be masculine and feminine.  Acorns can mean prosperity or spiritual growth from truth.  Ivy can represent The Holy Trinity or immortality.  A wheat sheaf illustrates a long life or the Resurrection.  Masons also use the wheat sheaf on their graves.  Since this tree lacks other Masonic symbols, we can probably reject the Masonic interpretation.

People buried in Bohemian National can be Catholic, Protestant, Freethinking, or agnostic/atheist.  We cannot assume a wholly secular or totally religious interpretation of the tree.  The sleeves are clearly secular.  The use of multiple symbols of fruitfulness/prosperity and of long life lean towards a more secular interpretation of the tree.  The family was proud of its success and lived long, productive lives.  The ceramic photograph and the tree (rather than a traditional headstone) suggest that the Prinz family had means.

A cautionary note:  acid rain has eroded the limestone, so other symbols may have evaporated or become indistinguishable.  Our next tree from St. Adalbert is undoubtedly religious.

Three Cross Tree

There may be 6 crosses on the tree.  The acid rain melted some elements on the Vachulka tree.  Jesus lost his head on the crucifix, too.  The inset crucifix scene, profusion of ivy, multiple Latin crosses, oak wreath, and rose on the right hand side all lend themselves to a 100% religious interpretation.  Christians believe that oak is one of the woods used to make Christ’s cross, and the rose either symbolized martyrdom or purity.  Given the crucifix scene, martyrdom is the more probable interpretation.  The Vachulka family stressed their piety and faith in their limestone tree.  Their own personal traits or values are subservient to their Catholic faith.

In each of these trees, the Prinz and Vachulka families memorialized their most important beliefs.  Ivy is the common element, used by both families to represent their individual interpretations of immortality.  The other design elements perpetuate the reasons why the families chose their respective cemeteries, perpetuating their beliefs into eternity.  Bohemian National Cemetery and St. Adalbert preserve these gravemarker weapons from an intra-ethnic conflict now forgotten.

*I used Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone to interpret the design elements.

Celebration Time

Yes, the new school year has begun.  I’ve already attended two of my three classes and found a little cubby hole in the library.  To truly memorialize the occasion, I felt I should post my list of Top Five Favorite Historical Sites.  The selection is wickedly subjective.  I have visited most of them multiple times, and each represents a different reason why I enjoy history.  Starting with #5:

5.  Lincoln-Tallman House

I never became a huge Lincoln or Civil War person, but this house kickstarted my interest in history/historical sites.  As a wee lassie from the Midwest, this house was the most exotic building I had ever seen.  I haven’t visited in 30 years but am still grateful for its inspiration

4.  Tombstone’s Historama

Vincent Price narrates, while a metal diorama depicting the various historical eras in Tombstone rotates.  You have to see it to believe it.  Then enjoy some sarsaparilla.  Yes, you have to drive a bit to reach basically three streets.  You will thank me after you view the Historama.

3.  The JFK Library and Museum

Jackie was first class all the way and a devoted student of history.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in the Kennedys, the library is a beautiful building; the exhibits are exquisitely displayed, and the ocean view is calming.  The library also contains the Hemingway archives for the literary fans in the crowd.

2.  Salem

From the Witch Museum to the House of Seven Gables to the Peabody & Essex Museum, I have spent months in Salem.  I dream of spending a week at the Hawthorne Hotel.  I love Finz restaurant, Colombo Yogurt, the historic homes, the graveyards.  Everything.  Standing in the garden of the House of Seven Gables is transporting.

1.  National Czech and Slovak Museum

I love my Czechs, especially when they are old and ornery.  The guide here made sure I revisited the first few artifacts on the tour that I missed because I arrived late.  The ticket gal said I should just join the tour.  She should have known better.  The more remarkable story is the recovery from the floor and upcoming re-opening of the museum.  The Czech, Iowa, and US governments all donated money to preserve the museum.  The Czechs were first and have been very generous with a number of US-based institutions.  The museum is located near the river (hence the flood) and is surrounded by Czech businesses.  If you like old time downtowns and ethnic enclaves, highlight Cedar Rapids on your map.

The Art of Cemeteries

Cemeteries aren’t the first place that springs to mind when looking for art, especially nowadays when tombstone design is expensive.  Finding stonecutters can also be problematic.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, renowned architects and sculptures did create works to memorialize a client or themselves.  These memorials were also a way to show that a family was prominent and deserved respect even in death.  Each cemetery can restrict the type of monuments or memorials allowed.  The art in Bohemian National Cemetery and Rosehill Cemetery reflect their founders intellectual and artistic beliefs.

Born from a battle where the Catholic relative of free thinkers was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery, Bohemian National maintains an inclusive attitude towards memorials, tombstones, and mausoleums.  The memorials contain examples of limestone statuary, photography, Art Deco imagery, and Chicago Cubs logos.

The limestone trees are the most striking memorials in Bohemian National.

Each tree is unique, although certain symbols are repeated.  A cluster of houbys appears at the bottom.  The bent branch references a life ended.  The oak leaves symbolize strength.

The mausoleums tend to reference Art Deco.  The most famous person buried at Bohemian National is buried in one such mausoleum:  Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago assassinated in 1933.

The torch imagery references a life snuffed out, as well as an eternal flame.  Bohemian National is replete with dual life/death images.   Clasped hands can mean “together forever” or “good-bye”.  A broken branch means a life cut short, but oak leaves and acorns symbolize life.

Porcelain ceramic photographs are also prominent on Bohemian National tombstones.  As long as the photographs are not broken, they withstand the elements quite well – better than the limestone statues.

Rosehill is a bit more staid.  Developed by Masons, Rosehill does contain its share of obelisks, including the legendary John Wentworth memorial.  If he could have created a monument larger than the Washington Memorial, he probably would have.

The sculptor Leonard Volk, known for his Lincoln life mask and hands, is buried alongside a statue of himself.

Rosehill was proud of its celebrity clientele, starting with General Thomas Ransom, killed in the Civil War.  Prominent Chicago families like Peck, Dick, Lill, and Kedzie have impressive plots.  One of the more unknown but arguably more consequential is George Bangs who created the post office mail train car.  George went with a limestone tree that included a train carving.

Before city parks existed, people would picnic at cemeteries.  The rolling lawns, peaceful settings, and beautiful sculptures are a prototype for the parks created by Olmstead and others.  Sculptors and architects like Thomas Boyington, Leonard Volk, and Anton Heller produced stunning works that are not trapped in museums or private collections. These are works meant to be appreciated and seen through the generations.