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.
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.
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.
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.
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.