Epic Rebirth

Faces of the flood: Saving some folk costumes - and a museum

Gail Naughton recalls 'unbelievable time' ... and now she'll retire

Gail Naughton, director and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, stands next to an exhibit of traditional costumes at the museum in southwest Cedar Rapids. During the 2008 flood, Naughton, at the last minute, loaded six of the museum’s mannequins, dressed in the most ornate folk costumes in the collection, into her minivan, thereby saving them. Naughton plans to retire this month. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Gail Naughton, director and CEO of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, stands next to an exhibit of traditional costumes at the museum in southwest Cedar Rapids. During the 2008 flood, Naughton, at the last minute, loaded six of the museum’s mannequins, dressed in the most ornate folk costumes in the collection, into her minivan, thereby saving them. Naughton plans to retire this month. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Gail Naughton squeezed six mannequins into her car when she finally left the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library as dusk fell June 11, 2008.

She had been dragging her feet before leaving the museum, thinking the museum might take on a bit of floodwater.

“By that point, you’re not getting things done, but you just don’t want to leave it,” Naughton said. “Once you do that, it’s just out of our hands.”

At 8:30 p.m., the day’s light still lingered. A police officer on a bicycle rode past, stopping to tell Naughton, the museum’s president and CEO, and the museum’s facilities manager, the last people left in the building, to go home.

They obliged, but not before Naughton made the last-minute decision to move the mannequins, dressed in elaborate folk costumes, out of the museum’s permanent exhibit and into her minivan.

The mannequins were dressed in the “layers and layers” of Czech tradition, with embroidered sleeves, elaborate headdresses, vests and colorful skirts, she said.

The outfits had, in many cases, been brought to the United States by immigrants many decades before.

“They would have one suitcase, or maybe a trunk and a suitcase, and they always brought their folk costumes,” Naughton said. “They were the absolute, prized possession.”

The most ornate of the costumes in the museum’s collection wound up, momentarily, lying in Naughton’s car.

“And then the best thing to do is to stand them back up,” she said. “So I stood them up in the living room in front of the fireplace.”

For several weeks, the figures spooked Naughton and her husband, Dennis, when they would momentarily forgot about them.

“You would walk in, and they would all be standing there looking at you,” she recalled.

The mannequins stayed at her house for weeks, while much of the museum’s collection was scattered in various dry locations around the city and much of it was off being restored.

There they would stand, in pristine condition. Those left behind in the museum were covered with muck. The day after Naughton evacuated, 8 feet of floodwater filled the museum, opened in 1995 by the presidents of the United States, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

At home, the rescued mannequins were a constant reminder of the devastation.

“It was one of those little things, among so many things that happened, that made up this unbelievable time that we all lived through in those early, early days of the flood and the aftermath,” Naughton said. “There were lots of moments where it would come back to you and hit you in the face.”

After the flood, the museum had exhibits at Lindale Mall and then the Kosek Building, 87 16th Ave. SW.

In 2011, the 1,500-ton museum was jacked up and moved 480 feet onto a foundation 3 feet above the level of the 2008 flood.

And now, 10 years after the flood, Naughton will retire this month as the museum’s director, having made some history of her own.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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