Museum in Cedar Rapids traces the journey of Czechs and Slovaks through history

Photo: Klára Stejskalová

Sitting in a living room during World War II; lying on a bunk in a steam ship on your way to America or standing in Wenceslas Square among the thousands of protesters at the height of the Velvet Revolution. What did it sound like? What did it feel like? The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids tells the story of Czechs and Slovaks in peace-time, under oppression and in the turmoil of war, bringing back memories to those who remember and sharing the story with those for whom it is entirely new.

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids,  photo: Klára Stejskalová
The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids is an institution that keeps the Czech and Slovak heritage alive far from home and helps Czechs and Slovaks abroad connect with their roots. When I visited it, on a recent trip to the United States, I was given a warm welcome by Teresa Stensrup, Director of Programs. As she took me around the museum, I asked how it came to be that the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is located in Cedar Rapids.

“Cedar Rapids does not have the biggest community of Czechs and Slovaks. Places like Chicago have more people. But I would say that the reason why we became the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library is because of the people that live here specifically. They started this really small organization – a one house museum – in 1974 and they were so dedicated to it, they just kept collecting items and working towards creating this big, monumental museum so that they could get to the point where in 1994, they were able to dedicate it as a national museum in cooperation with the three presidents.”

You mentioned a big flood, which changed the face of the Museum.

“Yes, in 2008 Cedar Rapids had a very catastrophic flood, which damaged the entire city and of course areas surrounding Cedar Rapids as well. The museum is right on the Cedar River that flooded, so we had about 11 million dollars in damages. Damages to our collection, the building itself and things that we could never replace. It was a terrible tragedy, but we saw it as an opportunity to come back bigger and stronger than ever. So, we actually moved the entire museum. It was – and I just learned this last week – the largest building that was ever moved in the United States. We moved the entire building over a 4-year period and completely restructured ourselves and regrew. The size of the building was doubled, and it was moved up a little bit, so we are a little bit more protected from flooding now. We also created so much more space to do things here. We now have things like external events, a ballroom, this gorgeous museum store and library, and of course more exhibit space as well.”

I heard that you have a big archive here.

“Yes, we have an extensive collection in our library. We have over 11 000 items of everything that you could possibly think of. Obviously, there are books, letters, we have rolls with music on them and the player to play them. We have everything going back hundreds of years to today. And we still are actively collecting things that are important to the Czech and Slovak story in Europe and also in America. So, we get all the publications from all the organizations from throughout the world and from America. We have a lot of genealogical items as well, so people can use that for research for their families.”

And you cooperate with the Czech and Slovak communities here in the USA?

“We do. Working with those different groups and organizations is very important to us. We do things with the local Sokol of course, the organization Western Fraternal Life, and any of those types of groups and organizations all around America, not just in Iowa. We work with groups all over the Midwest and have quite a few that we do different research projects with or have visits with. Or in my position, a lot of the time I will be bringing different people that are part of this organization here. For instance, we have the Czech and Slovak dancers from the Sokol in St. Paul, Minnesota, who have now come twice.”

Did you have any special events for the 30-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution?

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids,  photo: Klára Stejskalová
“This year, because is the 30th anniversary, we decided to focus on how art can be used as a way to express yourself and to stand up for and fight against injustices that you see. And what we decided to do was to build a replica Berlin Wall. While we do understand that the original Berlin Wall was not in Czechoslovakia, we saw it as a way to represent the freedom of expression that is denied under communism. So, we saw it as a way for people to make art and hear from artists that were there during that time while connecting it to other revolutions that have gone on throughout the world. For instance, we had an artist named Ganzeer, who was part of the Egyptian Revolution, and he did the same thing, used art to stand up against his government.”

Did you have events like workshops for young people?

“Yes, we had about six visiting artists and different workshops where they could learn from these artists and kind of talk about their creative process and specifically about how you can use art to express yourself. We had quite a few high school students work on the actual project of building the wall and writing messages on it. They learned all about the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc and all about the Velvet Revolution and about Havel.”

What is the most popular attraction for visitors here at the Museum?

“I won’t say it is the most popular, but people love our chandelier. If I am ever in the grand hall for an extended period of time, I will hear several people exclaim and be so amazed by how beautiful our chandelier is. It is made out of Czech glass, so it is very special to us. Also, people really like anything that they can make themselves, some kind of hands-on stuff. So, in Faces of Freedom – our permanent exhibit – the wheel of kroj is very popular, just because it is a turning wheel of people in that traditional folk costume, there is nothing comparable to it here in the United States. And then they also like our puppet theatre.”

You mentioned that you do not have Czech roots yourself. What made you interested in Czech or Czechoslovak history?

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International
“That is a good question because my original answer would have been that I wanted to work in museums. That was my passion, history and not just what my personal family history would be. I got this job here because I love programming. I love doing things for the public that kind of brings them into museums and makes them see the value of museums, how much we can learn. I have been here for two years now and I have just grown to love the Czech and Slovak story. They say it is one of resilience, one that is so rich in its history – there are so many moments that have occurred in that area from the Habsburgs to the Nazis to communist control. They have just seen so many big moments in history, and they have been able to come out stronger after each of them. Which is why people here make a comparison to the flood in 2008, which was a similar thing where the Museum was able to come back stronger. And I think that was possible because we used Czechs and Slovaks as our model to make that happen for us too.”

Can we take a walk around to view the exhibits?

“This exhibit officially opened up in 2013 and it is our main exhibit, some elements of it may change a little bit and as we are moving into our next strategic plan, we might make some bigger changes. But as a whole, this is going to stay the same. The whole premise of it is the journey of Czech and Slovak people through history – looking at it all the way back to the Austria-Hungarian Empire going forwards to the Velvet Revolution and the Velvet Divorce. That is one thing we are hoping to add to – the Czech and Slovak story after that time – because, obviously, it has been 26 years since the Velvet Divorce. I always find it interesting walking through this part with people, who are actually Czech or Slovak, and seeing what your take on it is. Because this is kind of an American interpretation of what we think the story is. So, what we choose to focus on is basically the story of resilience and freedom.”

Are the visitors mostly people with Czech roots?

“We don’t specifically ask that question. But I would say that a lot of people are. If they are tourists visiting from somewhere else, they are most likely visiting because they have some sort of Czech or Slovak heritage. We are kind of seen as a tourist destination as well, so we are a very common place for visitors to the city in general. So, it really depends. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. I would say that most people that are really engaged with us – are Czech and Slovak. ”

How many visitors do you have per year?

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International
“This isn’t going to be exact, but I know that in total the number of visitors – not just to the exhibits but to our events and our programs – is over 30 000.”

So here you have different sections, covering different periods of our common history?

“That’s right, this spot basically gives the background that most Americans especially are not going to know. It starts with the basic information regarding where the Czech Republic and Slovakia are on the map. Because that is something that a lot of people do not necessarily know, similarly to how a lot of people do not know where some states are on our map. So, we start with basic information and then this is a timeline, we basically go back to 1833 and we can see brief information on different moments in time and how they led to where we are today.

And this shows when and where Czechs settled in the States?

“Yes, this exhibit here is actually very popular, and not just among Czechs or Slovaks. Using this, you can see where people from Czechoslovakia and other countries settled in the United States. What we have found is that a lot of people did not think that they were Czech or Slovak, but they considered themselves to be Bohemian or Moravian. If you look at a lot of the documentation from Ellis Island, people would answer “Bohemia” when asked where they were from and then it would not be counted as Czechoslovakia. So, I think there could be some discrepancies there as well. And if they came before 1918, then, obviously, there was not a Czechoslovakia yet, and some would answer Austria or Austria-Hungarian Empire when asked. I have even talked to volunteers and museum members, who would say that they grew up being told that they were Bohemian and that they did not understand that it meant they were Czech.

And this is clearly just Czech and Slovak…

“This space is devoted to the birth of the Czechoslovak state and freedom. We obviously talked a lot about it last year, it being the centenary of Czechoslovakia’s founding. We had a whole exhibit on the Czechoslovak Legion, which greatly contributed to the creation of an independent state of Czechs and Slovaks. We talked a lot about Masaryk – we have a statue of him here in the museum. And in November we are having a panel exhibit for Štefánik on which occasion we will be getting a bust from the Slovak embassy.

“And here we come to World War II as seen through the eyes of a family and what their living room would have looked like. We have a letter here from Manja, and this was actually a real girl. She was a woman who moved here and was a volunteer. She allowed us to record all her oral history and then said that we could use her specifically to teach kids about the immigration experience. So, this is a letter, that she wrote to her cousin.”

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International
I see you have a veteran Tatra car here, so we must have entered the communist era section?

“Yes, the idea of this section is to somehow relate the experience of living under communism. And we opted for an interactive section. You can pick whether you think different things would have been allowed in communist Czechoslovakia, like Beatles music, for instance. It is really about trying to get people to understand what it meant to be under the control of a government like that. And again, as I said in the beginning, how we try to focus on what freedom means to each person. And, obviously, what it means to someone under the control of the USSR will be different than what it meant to Americans, who live in a free country.

"This here was a capstone project for us in which we collected oral histories. We collected a lot of Cold War memories of people that were in Czechoslovakia during that time, and this is just an example of some of them, we have quite a few online that are not just about the Cold War but also about the Czechoslovak story in general.

This video (of Marta Kubišová singing on Wenceslas in 1989) is very popular."

I was there at the time.

"Were you?"

Yes, I was a student at university, and I think all the university students were there at the time.

“That is definitely what we have been talking about this year, with it being the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc. We have talked a lot about the power of students and the power of expression. That is why we have used the Berlin Wall as a greater metaphor for how people can have a voice and speak up against injustices or things that they think are wrong in the world. But we definitely realize that when you look at the history from 1968 – the year of the Prague Spring – to 1989, the college and university students were the ones that were protesting. And today, when you look at that young girl (Greta Thunberg), who is 16 years old and protesting against climate change… I think that that is just a very common theme throughout history.”

Away from the anniversary, is there any special exhibit that stands out?

“This exhibit is different from anything that we have had, especially since I have been working here. This is a woman who dresses up infants – usually up to 10 or 11 months old – in Slovak kroj. You can kind of see her whole idea, which is to capture the beautiful work of art that kroj and folk dress is. And she thought “Why not put it on babies?” Because everyone loves babies, so it is easier to create connections. We had Hellene Cincebeaux here for the opening, she has the largest collection of kroj in the United States besides us. She came and talked all about her experience of traveling to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and she had a really good connection, and you will see that a couple of the dolls here are in her kroj as well. Babies in folk dress is essentially what this one is. I sometimes help with school tours and we usually talk to them about the art and what pieces they like and why.”

And what have you prepared for the coming year?

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International
“There are a couple of things that we are working on. Obviously, 2020 is an election year, so we will talk about things like democracy and what it means to be free, our form of democracy – democracy here versus other forms of democracy. It is also the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote in the United States, we got our right to vote a little later than the women in Czechoslovakia. So, we will be doing some programming specifically on that and the idea of a democracy – is it a democracy if not everyone can take part? And then it is also the hundredth anniversary of the first time the word robot was used in literature by Karel Čapek in “R.U.R”. We will be focusing on robotics as well, with the same idea of what it means to be free, looking at that through the eyes of robotics and artificial intelligence.”