Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids forms bridge between the past with the future

National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, photo: ArtisticAbode, CC BY-SA 3.0

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, prides itself on bringing Czech and Slovak expats more in touch with their roots, as well as inspiring all people to connect with Czech and Slovak history and culture. The museum’s President and CEO Cecilia Rokusek visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about its mission, current projects and outlooks for the future. I first asked her to say a few words about the museum’s history.

Cecilia Rokusek,  photo: archive of National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids
“The National Czech and Slovak Museum for the United States was established by a group of visionaries in 1974 who wanted to preserve and celebrate the Czech and Slovak culture that was established in the US. This early group of visionaries built a very small museum in an old building and in 1995 a brand new structure was built and it was dedicated by President Havel, President Clinton and President Kovač – all three of them came to Cedar Rapids and dedicated the museum. Then in 2008 the museum was almost completely destroyed by a flood. It took four years to rebuild and they literally moved the entire structure across the street to higher ground and almost doubled the size of the museum, so as a result of the flood we are bigger and stronger.”

How close-knit is the Czech and Slovak community in Cedar Rapids?

“Well, if we look at the historical development of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 100 years ago some 28 percent of the population was of Czech ancestry. More Czechs settled in that area than Slovaks, because if we look at the migration of Czechs and Slovaks to America we’ll see that most of the Czechs came to the middle heartland of America – Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oklahoma -and the highest number of Czechs currently are in Texas. Whereas the Slovaks –some settled in Chicago, some settled in Cleveland, we have a large population there, and others settled in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. So in the heartland we have a bigger imprint of Czechs but there is also a Slovak influence because of course at one time we were Czechoslovakia.”

Do you have annual events to bring them together?

We have a large permanent exhibit that is a celebration of the Czech and Slovak story of immigration.

“The museum has events throughout the year because we are now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute which is a significant distinction for us and we really have a lot of events – if you look at the calendar, we have three to four events a week. And we celebrate both the Czech and Slovak culture. So, for example, now we have a large permanent exhibit that is a celebration of the Czech and Slovak story of immigration and our history and culture. Then we have three smaller galleries that rotate –one of them is a celebration of Slovak lullabies, so we have infants dressed in native folk wear from Slovakia. They are ten days old these infants, and it is beautiful. In another gallery we have an exhibit of Czech calligraphy, by some artists of Czech descent, and in another room we have the 1989 exhibit which is a 6-months exhibit about the Velvet Revolution, where non-violent aggression really made an impact in the world.

“We also have a lot of education programs. One of our biggest priorities for the future is to focus on education for all ages about what Czechs and Slovaks contributed to America so we can not only celebrate and preserve the past, but create a future where people know that.”

What I meant was do you have events outside the museum, in the open air, to boost the feeling of togetherness?

Lullaby: Babies in Slovak Folk Dress,  photo: archive of National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids
“Absolutely, we just celebrated Houby Days. That was a three-day outdoor celebration of dancing, talking about mushrooms and Czech and Slovak food; then we will have an outdoor summer festival in July, we also have a music festival coming up and then in the fall we have a huge outdoor festival that is a combination of an Octoberfest and a food festival; se serve Czech and Slovak food and plenty of beer.”

Most of you are second, third, fourth generation Czechs –how important is it for you to stay in touch with your roots?

“Speaking as a fourth-generation Czechoslovak, it is extremely important. Two things have contributed to that in the US. One is that people are into discovering their ancestry -DNA tests and so on – and many people are finding out that they have Czechoslovak heritage and didn’t even realize it. And the other thing is that there is more of an awareness now to your own individual family history, people are looking into genealogy more now, they are more interested to know where their great-grand-parents came from and it’s an interesting phenomenon right now that we are finding a lot of what I call first-generation Czechs and Slovaks that come to America. They are less likely to be so involved in this cultural renewal like the second, third, fourth and even fifth generation Czechs where they will say my great-great-great-grandparents were of Czech descent or Slovak descent.”

When you organize exhibitions what are the main topics that you know will draw people? Is it Czech culture, literature, the years of the First Republic?

Many people are finding out that they have Czechoslovak heritage and didn’t even realize it.

“I think it is a combination of many things. At the museum we plan our programs two to three years ahead, so we try to look at significant dates in history, like with the 1918 anniversary last year, but cultural preservation is always there and I think that question is an important one right now because for ethnic museums like ours, or cultural museums, we have to find a balance in cherishing and preserving the history but also bringing it into context of what’s relevant today and finding ways to teach what Czech and Slovak culture brings to other people and other nationalities. We are certainly looking at music. Antonín Dvořák spent a great deal of time in Spillville, Iowa, which is not far from us, and so we are looking at the influence of that region on his music, also from his meeting some of the African-American population. Your question opens up a whole door in that we are not just about culture, cultural preservation or history, but we are about relevance and preserving what the Czechs and Slovaks have done and also looking to the future –what Czechs and Slovaks are doing now to contribute to Czech society.”

You have a permanent exhibition called Faces of Freedom. What is that about?

“Faces of Freedom talks about the immigrant story. It talks about the journey to America. It talks about the journey on the ship. We have a model ship there where people can actually experience what it was like to travel over in cramped quarters. We cover the whole immigration story, because there were phases of immigration, for instance my great-great-grand parents immigrated in the 1800s and then we had immigrants in the early 1900s and we had immigrants after WWII and we have current immigrants….So Faces of Freedom really traces the immigrant story to America which is past and current as well.”

This year we are marking 30 years since the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism. How are you marking the anniversary?

Presidents of Czech Republic,  Slovakia and USA dedicate National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids,  photo: Baculis1,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“We have a special exhibit called Revolution 1989. We have artefacts, films, pictures, posters and memorabilia that people have contributed or loaned to us. We have programs for students, we have programs for adults where we talk about freedom, democracy and gentle aggression and how people –through dialogue and working together - can overthrow something that at one time may have seemed impossible. And I think the most poignant example is that we worked with two high schools to build a Berlin Wall. The students actually designed it with architects and in November we will take it down. And students are painting on the wall just like they did back then – and talking about what one side of the wall had on it and what the other side didn’t have on it. We are trying to take the lessons learnt in 1989 and apply them to contemporary times.”

Do you remember the heady days of the Velvet Revolution? How did you experience them in the US?

“As a person working in academics at the time – I’m a professor in academics – I remember very clearly my parents and grandparent telling me “Všechno bude dobrý teď v Čechách” – everything will be OK in the Czech lands now. My parents and grandparents had never been here before – they only came after that. For them it was like a door opened and I remember telling them – we are going to go to the Czech Republic now.”

And you did?

“We did. We came in 1991.”

What was it like?

I hope we will be stronger and even bigger and continue to teach all generations the lessons of those times in history that Czechs and Slovaks made a huge impact.

“It was amazing. We rented a car in Germany and we crossed the border and my dad couldn’t wait to talk to the guards in Czech. He was so excited. And we got to Prague and all we could do was just look. We were so mesmerized by the beauty. We stayed with relatives outside of Prague and we would take the metro into town each day. In 1991 things were still developing into the society we know today here…and we have been back every year, several times, since.”

How did Czechs and Slovaks in Cedar Rapids experience the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993?

“That is a question I get asked a lot. And my experience is that the Czechs and Slovaks love each other, they all seem like brothers and sisters and they all refer to the days of Czechoslovakia. Of course they have national pride in being Czech or Slovak but they see each other as real friends and colleagues. They see each other as separate now, but still being together in spirit. They saw the lessons of the former Yugoslavia where the break-up did not go so easily, whilst here it did. And the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids is a place where they come together, and I really see them coming together for all events. If we have a Czech event the Slovaks come and vice-versa. And we try to balance our programming so that people do learn about Czechs and Slovaks and if there are some differences in the nationalities –which there are - then about those as well.”

Do you keep abreast of developments in the Czech Republic today? Do you follow what is going on?

“Absolutely, all the time. I have an outstanding staff and they keep track of it and I myself do as well, of course.”

Do you feel that the Czech Republic has used well the opportunities that presented themselves after 1989?

“Absolutely. I think we are a sterling example of it, up to the current times. The Czechs have a very strong history in the Havel philosophy, they continue to permeate that in their actions and I think you see that still.”

What are your hopes for the museum and library into the long-term future? Fifty years from now will there still be a need for it, will there still be a community interested?

National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids,  photo: ArtisticAbode,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Absolutely. I think that if I look at the National Czech and Slovak Museum now, our greatest potential is the future. Museums have changed a great deal and the museum challenge for the future is this: we have to make sure that our footprints –the Czech and Slovak footprints – are never forgotten and that we continue to monitor them even into the current times. We have a lot to learn from the past and I think the future will open up new doors and new opportunities.

"Museums today are education institutions and certainly we want to work with the National Museum here in Prague and the National Museum in Bratislava in making sure that the Czech and Slovak legacy is not forgotten. It is too easy for Americans – and possibly other cultures, but I know Americans the best – to forget. So in the next 50 years I hope we will be stronger and even bigger and continue to teach all generations the lessons of those times in history that Czechs and Slovaks made a huge impact. And will continue to make an impact I am sure. So I hope that we will have even more space and that we will be even bigger in the future. You know, the success of our museum is certainly dependent upon Czechs and Slovaks, but it is also dependent upon other cultures who come to visit us.”