Freelance museum curator finds stories in everyday objects

Doris Montag's new exhibit on egg cartons is at Coralville Public Library

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IOWA CITY — When Doris Montag talked with friends and family about letting her borrow their collections of lace tatting and crochet for an exhibit, she learned these handmade creations sparked memories.

“Out would come the things and out would come the stories,” said Montag, 64, of Iowa City. “One woman almost started crying when I talked about starching because she remembered that she would do that with her grandmother on Saturday mornings.”

Montag is a freelance curator, which means she develops and installs small exhibits at museums and libraries across Eastern Iowa. The theme of her collections is the history of everyday objects.

Montag, whose eyes twinkle and whose curly hair springs out of hairclips, knows how to tell a tale. She jumps out of her seat to grab a colorful Farm Master egg scale that uses the weight of an egg to determine if it’s small, medium, large or extra large.

“That started it all,” she said of a new collection on chickens and eggs. Part of the trove is now on display at the Coralville Public Library.

The scale sat in the spare bedroom of her mother, Dorothy Montag, 91, of Nora Springs. Doris saw it each time she visited, but didn’t act until she spotted a unique three-by-four egg carton for $1 at an Iowa City tag sale.

Soon, she had collected more scales, wire egg baskets, egg cartons, devices for plucking birds and a wealth of information about how farmers — usually women — raised chickens throughout history.

“One of the most popular sections was about how chickens do it,” she said, referring to chicken coop, er, copulation.

One of Montag’s first exhibits was in 2010 at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where she was the longtime administrator for the pediatrics department. She retired from that job in April.

“It was 14 hours a day, every day and a lot of stress,” she said. “The collecting let me relate to people not in the health care industry. It’s been something I’ve done with my siblings and mother.”

Montag learned about curation from Maureen Harding, former curator for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch.

Montag curated an August exhibit of barbering tools at the Johnson County Historical Society Museum and has contracts for December exhibits of black Santas at the African American Museum of Iowa, where she serves on the board of directors, and the Coralville library.

Montag provides most of her exhibits for free, although she often is paid for talks to community groups.

Because she spends so many hours communicating with collectors, researching topics and artifacts and installing the exhibits, Montag doesn’t have time right now to start new collections. But she keeps coming up with ideas.

She leans in, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“I know about a lady in Northern Iowa who has a collection of paper dolls,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

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