Czech it out
The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids is worth a visit – if only for the building.
It’s an impressive sight, this museum. And what makes it even more impressive is how it got where it is.
The original 16,000-square-foot structure was built in 1995 on the banks of the Cedar River. In 2008, during Cedar Rapids’ epic flood, the museum took on eight feet of water (below), causing $11 million in damage and destroying some of the contents. Following conservation of the artifacts that were salvaged, some exhibits were displayed temporarily in other locations.
Meanwhile, what to do about the museum? Restore it, only to have it flood again? Rebuild it elsewhere?
With Iowa ingenuity and a whole lot of moxy, the staff and board chose to move the building – all 1,500 tons of it – 480 feet from original site. I had a hard time imagining this – but you don’t have to imagine, because when you visit the museum, you can watch a seven-minute film titled “A Monumental Move” that explains how the museum was moved and even shows, in time-lapse video, the move itself. (You can also view an animated version of the move and read more about the history of the museum here.)
The museum was moved in 2011 – it now sits 11 feet higher than it did in its original location and a full three feet above 2008 flood level – and expanded. The museum reopened in 2012.
It’s really a beautiful building. You walk in to a grand hall with towering ceilings and a huge chandelier. To the right is the Hemphill Theater, which shows the “Monumental Move” video among other films, and to the left is a large museum store.
One of the museum’s current exhibits is “Read My Pins,” a collection of brooches won by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. I didn’t realize Albright was born in former Czechoslovakia, and I was unaware of her obsession with large, exotic pins. But sure enough, there she is in many photographs with world leaders, all decked out with huge spiders and such on her shoulder. You’d think this would not be terribly interesting, but I assure you that if you take a close look and read the accompanying stories, this exhibit is strangely engrossing. The display runs through Oct. 27.
Other exhibits are “Bobbins, Bows & Beads” (a traditional costume exhibit) and the immigrant home. The small home, just outside the main building, is open by docent-led tours only (on the hour and half-hour). It’s a mildly interesting look at the home life of an immigrant family in the 1880-90 period.
Another exhibit, “Leaving Czechoslovakia” is not terribly visual, but the stories are gripping. That exhibit is in the Skala Bartizal Library room, which would be a great place to search for your ancestors if you happen to be of Czech descent.
Here’s the disappointing thing: I visited the National Czech and Slovak museum on June 13. Fully half of the building was closed off in preparation for the opening of a huge exhibit titled “Faces of Freedom: The Czech and Slovak Journey” on June 15. I missed the damn thing by TWO DAYS. (I had no idea.) I sort of feel like they shouldn’t have been charging the full $10 admission fee since half the museum was unavailable.
But, OK. By the time you read this, the exhibit is open, and it looks amazing. The brochure and website descriptions of this permanent 7,000-square-foot exhibit makes me think fondly of my visit to the immigrant museum on New York’s Ellis Island:
Visit the replica of the steerage section of a steamer ship that brought immigrants to America. Stand in Wenceslaus Square amidst shaking keys at the height of the Velvet Revolution…. Visit a recreated WWII-era loving room, where you can hear news about the war as it happened…. View a Tatra secret police car, an authentic JAWA motorcycle, a replicated communist watch tower, glass, porcelain, and more.
Sigh. Sure woulda liked that. Too bad I was two days early.
Cutting my losses, I left the museum and walked the length of the Czech Village (16th Ave. SW and C Street SW). It’s one block long, with small businesses on each side of the street. I found authentic Czech food at the Blue Toad café (chicken paprika, red cabbage, potato dumplings, chicken liver soup, cabbage rolls) but none of the entrees were vegetarian so I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich off the kids’ menu. I did have a big-girl drink, however – a Staropramen lager from Prague – and found it quite tasty.
The Czech Village has several antiques shops, a couple of other places to eat and drink, and the Sykora Bakery, where I sampled cream cheese and apricot kolaches.