116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At the end of a hallway lies the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library's best kept secret. It's where history lives every day, but unless you're doing research, you might not have stepped through the doors into a library where no one will shush you.
'I want conversations to happen,” Library Director David Muhlena said. 'We're not the old-school library. We want people to be able to feel free to celebrate their heritage here. If they have a question, we want them to ask.”
It's a library where visitors will find books in English, Czech, Slovak and other languages; genealogy clues; record albums; sheet music; photographs; pamphlets; and about 400 player piano rolls.
And for the past couple of years, the library has housed temporary exhibits along one wall and in display cases.
In the other wing, the museum's galleries have showcased everything from the artistry of Alphonse Mucha, Andy Warhol and Dale Chihuly to the brooches of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Through July 25, however, the museum is mounting its first exhibit tracing its roots, on view in the Skala Bartizal Library.
'Building a National Museum: The History of Us” features printed materials and photographs from various milestone moments, including its beginnings in a little house at 1607 C St. SW and the day three presidents helped open the new building on the riverbank Oct. 21, 1995, to moving the massive structure to higher ground after the historic 2008 flood sent 10 feet of fetid water rushing through the museum, causing more than $11 million in damage.
Thanks to a disaster plan and just enough time to set it in motion, the library's archival materials were saved from the flood, but the player piano was not. 'It would be nice to get some means to plays these (piano rolls) back and record them,” Muhlena said.
While the library's holdings aren't available for checkout, the public is invited to check them out from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Those also are the hours for viewing the new history exhibit, chock full of brochures, newsletters, newspaper clippings and photos mapping the museum's evolution and celebrating two significant anniversaries:
' 50 years since a 1971 art exhibit planted the seed for establishing a museum
' and in 2020, 25 years since U.S. President Bill Clinton, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and Slovak Republic President Michal Kovac came to Cedar Rapids to help dedicate the new red-roof building on the riverbank. It still anchors the museum's relocated site at 1400 Inspiration Place SW.
'In 2020, we had been planning on celebrating that anniversary, then of course, with the pandemic, it really didn't happen, so we'll probably be doing some things in 2021,” said Stefanie Kohn, the museum's curator.
Looking ahead, she noted that 2024 will mark 50 years since the founding of the Czech Fine Arts Foundation, from which the museum would develop and grow.
Muhlena is especially pleased to display the exhibit catalog from 'A Festival of Czech Arts,” on view from Oct. 28 to Dec. 31, 1971, at the Cedar Rapids Art Center, which would later become the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
'It was a community-curated exhibit,” Muhlena said, for which area residents loaned their fine art, folk art, heirlooms and artifacts.
'The city was just really interested in it and (organizers) had a lot of really positive response,” Kohn said, which prompted them to consider establishing a museum.
In 1974, Czech immigrant descendants formed the Czech Fine Arts Foundation and the Czech Heritage Foundation. The Czech Village Association followed in 1975. As noted in the museum's most recent Slovo magazine, Denver Dvorsky, former president of the Czech Heritage Foundation, said those three organizations worked 'individually and collectively” to make the museum dream a reality.
The three-room house on C Street SW was the first of several sites for the growing collection, most of which has been donated over the years. In 1983, the museum acquired a 19th century immigrant home. After renovations, it opened as a permanent exhibit in 1985, and remains a popular part of the museum campus.
The biggest move forward came on Oct. 28, 1993, when ground was broken for a new 16,000 square foot museum overlooking the Cedar River. Two years later, it was dedicated with lively pomp and circumstance.
On May 24, 1997, the museum opened its first international exhibition, 'A Thousand Years of Czech Culture: Riches from the National Museum in Prague.” As noted on the museum's website, this landmark collection drew 30,000 visitors from around the world.
But an even bigger move would follow in 2011, as the museum was painstakingly moved from the riverbank to higher ground 480 feet away and 11 feet higher - three feet above the historic flood level. The footprint was expanded, doubling the gallery space for permanent and temporary exhibits.
An estimated 14,000 to 16,000 people came to the Grand Opening ceremonies July 14 and 15, 2012, which included a powerhouse exhibit, 'Alphonse Mucha: Inspirations of Art Nouveau,” attracting visitors from across the country.
'That was a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit,” Kohn said.
For more information on the museum's evolution, scroll down to the timeline at ncsml.org/about-ncsml/
Or go to the new exhibit.
Visitors will be able to see the museum's 'progression from an organization that started out very local, to one that grew into a national and international organization,” Muhlena said.
The museum has been a source of local pride. It was local individuals, members of community of Czech descent, who started this whole organization. Hopefully, they will come see it, but also, those who visit us from outside of the immediate area will be able to see how this started as a local organization that because of persistence and pride, has grown into what it is today.”
Kohn added: 'It's an opportunity to remember where we came from, and the point that it really started small with a dedicated core group - they were all volunteers for 20 years. They really laid the groundwork, and it kept building and building. The whole organization kept growing.
'They had this vision of a museum and library that they realized,” she said. 'It's pretty inspiring really. Because they loved their heritage so much, they were determined to make it happen - to have a museum and library in their city.”
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At a glance
' What: 'Building a National Museum: The History of Us” exhibit
' Where: Skala Bartizal Library, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
' When: Through July 25
' Library hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
' Library admission: Free
' Museum hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday; admission to other galleries, up to $10
' Library exhibit details: ncsml.org/exhibit/building-a-national-museum-the-history-of-us/
' Safety: Masks required; other measures at ncsml.org/ncsml-announces-reopening-plan/
' Museum information: ncsml.org/