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. 



Preservation vs. Restoration

When last we left the goldwork project, Phoebe was concerned and needed some time to plot her next move. She is a trooper and once more stepped into the breach.

Phoebe ready to go

Our hopes that gently washing the fabric might help with pliability were crushed.  The fabric continued to turn to dust.  Piercing it with a needle proved impossible.  We quickly realized that we would not be able to apply a backing fabric via needle & thread.  I hesitated to iron anything to the back.  In the end, we chose preservation over restoration – hence the shadowbox.

Goldwork Shadowbox

Basically I cut the goldwork into pieces, salvaging the best parts.  Then using rust-proof archival pins, I pinned the pieces to the shadowbox, going through the padded goldwork for greater stability.  Hopefully the beauty of the pieces can be enjoyed for a few more years before completely turning to dust.

I do have a few sections left and will try to attach the individual elements to velvet, which can then be stretched and framed.  The silk background is unworkable.  I do not suffer from the illusion that my needlework will be treasured as heirlooms for years to come.  I do use the right tools for the job.  How else can you learn proper technique?  I am shocked that an embroiderer who could do such lovely goldwork and stumpwork was so clueless as to not use the proper double layer fabric technique.  Such a shame.

Phoebe and I learned a lot doing our background research and trying different techniques.  I just wish we could have saved more of the embroideries.

Reviving the Roosters

Laura sent me two identical goldwork on silk embroideries that are in terrible shape.  She thinks I may have the skills to save them.  I appreciate the thought.  After a year of restoration research (I really don’t want to screw up), I began the restoration process.  Let’s see what we have to start with:

Yeah, it’s pretty ugly.  Take a closer look:

When you do goldwork embroidery, you use layers of fabric so the weight of the gold doesn’t rip apart the fabric.  The goldwork itself is stunning, which is why I am so surprised that the embroiderer screwed up the fabric layer part.  This is one layer of silk on a layer of netting.  The roosters and other birds are padded and therefore 3D – making them that much heavier.  The silk has now hardened and crumbles like paper. The weight of the gold is too much for the silk.

Let’s enjoy the goldwork:

I’m not giving up without a fight.  Today, I cleaned it using Restoration, a fabric cleanser made specially for antique fabrics.  Using a paint brush, I applied it to the fabric only and then used the same technique with plain water to rinse.  The silk is so hard.  I had hoped the water would soften it.  We shall see.  Phoebe is very concerned.

We’ll see what happens after everything dries.  Theoretically, the next step will be to insert a layer of muslin between the silk and the netting – adding some support.  Then I can use Miracle Muck (an archival polymer adhesive) to glue everything back into place.  Then I would add some quasi-quilting stitches in invisible thread for more support.  To quote the inimitable Tim Gunn:  this concerns me.

If the silk remains too brittle, then I may have to cut out the centers and try to save the goldwork edges.  You could stick a gigantic candle in the center or a tricked out Christmas tree.

Ultimately, the pieces would be matted to a velvet board for further support.  In future, they would have to be displayed on a horizontal surface, like a glass table or shadow box on a table.  Next weekend, Phoebe and I will try to muck!  Fingers crossed for the miracle part.