C.R. museum exhibit marks 30 years since 1989's Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

 

Thirty years ago, the world changed.

It was 1989, and communism was falling in Europe. The Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany fell in November, as political change ushered in democratically elected governments in many countries for the first time in decades.

In Czechoslovakia, street protests culminated when playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel was elected president on Dec. 29 in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.

To mark the anniversary year, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library has a new exhibit, “Revolution 1989,” up now through Sept. 8.

 

“The exhibit is about events all over the world in 1989,” museum curator Stefanie Kohn said. “There were upheavals against communist regimes around the world.”

With artifacts, photographs and video, the exhibit traces the rise of communism after World War II through the Cold War before finally arriving in 1989. Along the ceiling of the gallery, coiled wire evokes the Berlin Wall and the heavy surveillance that many communist countries operated under.

Not every attempted revolution was successful. The exhibit includes a section on the Tiananmen Square protests in China, when government troops violently crushed student-led pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

In a room at the back of the gallery, visitors can make screen prints of their own protest posters. The activity is available from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.

The museum is partnering with local students to create screen prints for the exhibit and for outreach activities they will hold in the community in coming months.

Students in Alburnett High School’s Pirate Collaborative class have been working on screen prints for the outreach activities. The project has meant researching the history of the 1989 revolutions and communism in Europe, as well as learning how to create the screen prints themselves.

For junior Aaron Carter, the project has been a good way to learn a new skill while engaging with the ideas presented in the exhibit, such as the power of protest and using art to push for change.

“We looked at protest materials people created to get people to rally around a cause,” he said. “It’s really interesting to see what kids our age made.”

Kohn said student involvement with the exhibit is especially relevant given the way many of the revolutions started, with youth in the streets.

“It’s a nod to the fact a lot of these protest were student led,” she said.

 

The exhibit includes actual student protest posters from the Velvet Revolution. Each is one of a kind and are from the collection of Mount Mercy professor emeritus James Grove, who was teaching in Czechoslovakia at the time. He saw the posters being torn down and saved them.

“The Velvet Revolution started during marches on International Students Day on Nov. 17,” Kohn said.

Cedar Rapids students also will be involved in another interactive piece of the exhibit that will go up this spring outside the museum — a replica of part of the Berlin Wall.

Sarah Henderson, learning specialist for the museum, said a team of community partners will help with the wall, including Neumann Monson Architects, local trade union members and students at the Cedar Rapids Metro STEAM Academy and Iowa BIG in Cedar Rapids.

“The students are learning about communism’s history, freedom of speech and the power of protest,” Henderson said.

Artists will paint on the wall throughout the summer. The public will be able to paint on it as well.

“I think it’s always good to remind people about communist oppression in the 20th century and what people did under communism and how they struggled and fought against it,” Kohn said.

 

If You Go

 

• What: Revolution 1989 exhibit

• When: Through Sept. 8

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

• Details: ncsml.org/exhibit/revolution-1989

• Also: The museum and local students will help members of the public make screen prints related to the exhibit at the Community Cultural Celebration and Expo, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 9, Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

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