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Virtual history: Students, museum collaborated to tell story of Czechoslovakian soldiers

Metro sophomore Bryan Lopez uses the virtual reality part of the exhibit located in a replica railcar during an opening reception for the Metro High School STEAM Academy and Iowa BIG students who worked on components of the “Guts & Glory” exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 6, 2018. Lopez was on of the Metro students who created the replica railcars. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Metro sophomore Bryan Lopez uses the virtual reality part of the exhibit located in a replica railcar during an opening reception for the Metro High School STEAM Academy and Iowa BIG students who worked on components of the “Guts & Glory” exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids on Friday, April 6, 2018. Lopez was on of the Metro students who created the replica railcars. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A century after the creation of Czechoslovakia and the end of World War I, visitors to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library can step into the virtual past in the “Guts & Glory: The War Train the Shaped a Nation” exhibit, on display through Dec. 31.

Complete with an interactive virtual reality experience, the exhibit is an unprecedented collaboration between the museum and students at two Cedar Rapids schools.

“Really, it’s the kids who have made this so special,” museum president and CEO Gail Naughton said. “At the beginning, when we decided to do this exhibit, we thought, ‘How can we make it so it isn’t a dry historical exhibit? How can we make it engaging for students?’ ”

Those conversations grew into the idea to not just engage students in visiting the exhibit, but in building it.

Based on Kevin J. McNamara’s book “Dreams of a Great Small Nation,” the exhibit tells the story of how the 60,000 Czech and Slovak soldiers who supported the Allies were stranded in Russia as the war ended and a revolution began there. The soldiers seized the Trans-Siberian Railway and fought the 5,000 miles to the port that would get them back to their newly created country.

The train journey is recreated in the museum’s Petrik gallery, complete with physical cars for visitors to walk through, designed and built by Cedar Rapids Metro High School STEAM Academy students, as well as the virtual reality experience designed by students at the Iowa BIG school. Students from both schools delved into the history behind the exhibit, talked with author McNamara and worked in collaboration with museum staff.

The train the soldiers took to get home functioned as a moving city, complete with cars dedicated to everything from laundry to baking. The exhibit includes a replica medical car and postal car, complete with artifacts and depictions of what they might have looked like.

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Designing, building and installing the replica train cars took a year and a half and involved building the pieces in the Metro garage before transporting them to the museum.

“It was different from anything I’d ever done for school,” Metro senior Kaleb Bruce said.

Teacher Chuck Tonelli said the students were excited to see their work on display, as dignitaries including Czech Republic Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek toured the opening April 7.

“The opportunity to work with a national museum is fantastic,” he said. “Our goals are to get kids engaged in the community, to get real world experience and integrate that into our curriculum.”

In the virtual reality car, visitors, guided by museum staff, put on a headset and are transported to a 3-D animated Siberian landscape, complete with falling snow and a flickering fire. The scene then moves into the bread car of the train, which acted as a mobile bakery to keep the soldiers fed. Visitors can explore the virtual space, with information boxes that pop up for different elements.

Iowa BIG junior Issac Miller said working on the project was inspiring. They also learned about virtual reality and design.

“This is what the future of technology is,” Miller said.

Museum curator Stefanie Kohn said the virtual reality car offered an innovative window into the past.

“It’s a different way to look at history than just seeing photos or artifacts,” she said.

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She said this is the first time the museum has worked with students so closely on exhibit design.

“It’s totally new for us to not build our exhibits in-house or with professionals. We’ve never done a collaboration like this. The train cars were a major part of the exhibit — this was all in,” she said. “It was risky, but it turned out great.”

Along with the train cars, the exhibit features graphic novel panels painted by artist and University of Iowa faculty member Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. She worked with McNamara to translates scenes from his book into the format. They’re hoping to also produce a comic book version this summer.

“Part of the idea was to really appeal to high school students,” Marie-Crane Williams said.

Naughton said collaborations such as this one are an important part of the museum’s mission to be more than a place to learn about the past. She said community support after the Floods of 2008 helped cement that mission.

“We want to be an active and serving part of the community,” she said. “We wouldn’t have come back if it wasn’t for Cedar Rapids ... We really want the community to know this is their museum.”

 

If you go

 

• What: Guts & Glory: The War Train that Shaped a Nation

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• When: Through Dec. 31.

• Admission: Free to $10

• Virtual reality: The virtual reality experience will be available 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays, as well as at limited times on weekdays. VR experiences are scheduled every 15 minutes; participants will be given a timed ticket when they purchase museum admission. VR participants must be age 10 or older, and children under age 14 must be accompanied by an adult. All VR participants must sign a liability waiver.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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