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. 

 

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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.