Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids: helping people learn the lessons of the past

The Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids

The Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa recently experienced the worst period in its 38-year-long history. Devastated by the 2008 floods the museum has fought long and hard to survive and continue to fulfil its mission –bearing testimony to the two small European nations’ search for identity, human rights and freedom in the turbulent times of the 20th century. Thanks to generous donations from institutions and individuals the museum was able to reopen its doors to the public this summer. Its head Gail Naughton visited Radio Prague’s studio recently to talk about what the institution had lost and gained by the 2008 floods and share her plans for the future.

The Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids
“We’ve lost time. We’ve lost four years when we have more or less not been open to the public. We’ve had spaces, but not a fully operational museum and library so that’s time wasted. But we have gained a new perspective on ourselves. You know when something like this happens, you really stop and think. You ask yourself: what is this institution and are we relevant, why are we here and what is the core of what we do? So we had some time to do that and we have a new mission and a new vision and we are moving forward on a lot of fronts.”

So what is your raison d’etre? Obviously you are not a museum in the classical sense of the word you are much more interactive and alive…

“Our mission is to inspire people of all backgrounds to connect to Czech and Slovak history and culture and the key there is that we are trying to broaden the scope of people that we reach. The Czechs and Slovaks have this really important experience in the 20th century –in contemporary history –and there are a lot of lessons to be learnt. The search for freedom –which is really a thematic tie of the 20th century for Czechs and Slovaks -is something that we’ve all experienced, all our families have at one point or another come from somewhere else and so we all have that in common. So we are looking at those lessons and the things that we share.”

What are the kind of things that you offer? You currently have an Alfons Mucha exhibition, I believe?

“To open the museum two months ago we organized an Alfons Mucha exhibition, partnered with the Mucha Trust, and we have over 230 items some from Prague and some from London. It is the largest Mucha exhibition that the foundation has ever done and what’s special about this exhibition is that of course it is wonderful and you don’t need to do another thing but look at all the beautiful work but in addition to that we really delve into the story of the man and his dedication to his culture and how he developed in many artistic ways –not only the commercial art that we all identify with him. It’s wonderful and we’ve had record numbers of people coming –the word is out in the United States and this is really the only chance to see a Mucha exhibition in the US in the last two decades.”

What other projects do you have?

“Well, opening the museum was in itself a really big job. It is now three times as big as it was so we had 3 exhibitions to mount as well as a library to get up and running, we have a new theatre now so we have been gathering film works together to be shown as part of the visitor experience.”

You have film screenings?

“Yes, right now there is a film on Mucha so people can get a background on him and then we have a movie on the flood-related work and moving house which was quite an engineering feat. That’s documented so people get a little bit of our background story. Now as we are getting back on our feet we are working on a permanent exhibition and this is a project that we have been working on for a couple of years and that will open next summer. That’s our core –it expresses our mission and our vision…”

What does it involve? The country’s history?

“The early history in very, very brief form. The 20th century history in more depth because you have to have the context of what was happening in the countries and in the world to understand what happened to Czechs and Slovaks and of course we Americans are affected by it as well so we do spend some time on World War I and World War II, the communist era, the Velvet Revolution from when we have a unique video that was taken by a man who was here in 1989 and filmed the crowds on Wenceslas Square, we talk about emigration, Czechs and Slovaks coming to the US, We talk about ways in which you fight for, preserve and celebrate freedom and part of that is maintaining your culture, part of that is being able to express yourself. And after people have this experience we bring them around to the question - what does freedom really mean? This is something that we in America take for granted I think in many ways. It is a fragile thing freedom is and I don’t think that in America we really appreciate that. And when you look at the 20th century in the Czech and Slovak lands you get a picture of how fragile it can be. So we want to develop people’s thoughts on freedom and identity and human rights and dignity and these elements of life and then look at today. Because people are fighting for these values in many parts of the world and we want people to become better informed, more knowledgeable and more contributing to civil society.”

Who are your visitors Gail?

“I think primarily we are a destination for Czech and Slovak Americans. We have only been open for two months and we have had visitors from every state in the union. We’ve had visitors from about 14 countries so we very much are a destination museum. I think that Czech and Slovak Americans –depending on what generation they are from the people who came over to the States have varying levels of knowledge of what the countries are today and maybe even some of the 20th century history. I think they are an educated public for the most part but I think this is a way to learn. But our museum is also a place for children and families. There’s a child’s story that runs through this –the story of a girl named Mana. Mana is a real woman who came over with her family in 1912 and lived in the neighbourhood so we have many interviews with her and information about her life so she will be something that children can identify with.”

Do you organize any special events tailored to the Czech and Slovak community? Many of these people must feel a deep nostalgia for things Czech….

“They do, they do and we do have things for them. We have a history and culture conference coming up in April to which we are inviting people from the Czech Republic and from the States. This event focuses on stories. One of the big projects we have done in the last four years in an oral history project for which we have travelled around the States gathering real-life stories from Cold War émigrés. They are a generation that is passing on and there are some dramatic and important histories there. They are part of the base of an exhibition that we are planning and we are going to be delving into those more next spring. We also have a dance festival in the spring, we have a beer tasting event in the fall – a big event and very popular –so it is on lots of levels and we take programming out as well. We have done programmes recently in Washington DC, New York City, there’s one coming up in California –we go out to people because we know that not everyone can get to Cedar Rapids all the time and we very much want to serve our national audience.”

Cedar Rapids museum during the floods in 2008
Where do you see the museum in 10 -15 years time?

“I see it as being even more relevant to the conversations of today and the issues of today where we have something to share, where history contributes to the conversation. We are talking about human rights, identity and freedom. I am not sure how that is going to express itself yet –that’s still under development - but we want to take the core of this story and we want to use it. And I see us doing a lot more in that area. “