When Gail Naughton took over as head of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library more than 15 years ago, she had no idea how much the position would challenge her.
Five years into her tenure, the Floods of 2008 swamped the museum. After the waters receded, Naughton oversaw a $28 million renovation and expansion that included moving the building to higher ground before it reopened in 2012.
As she prepares to retire this summer, she reflected on that time and on how it helped reshape both her and the museum’s mission.
“It brought out strength I didn’t know I had, and I think that happened all over Cedar Rapids,” she said. “We all had to rise.”
After Cedar Rapids residents came together to help the museum rebuild, she said it was important to her and the board to make sure the museum was a place for all of the community. They increased family programming and, in 2015, unveiled a new strategic plan which included both becoming more embedded in the community and having a greater focus on human rights. The idea, Naughton said, is to translate themes from the Czech and Slovak story to how they relate to all peoples. Those themes include topics like immigration, struggles under totalitarian regimes and the desire for self-determination.
“When Bohemians were coming, they were being discriminated against, just like immigrants are today. It is the immigrant story,” she said.
Another example — museum staff are working on an exhibit for 2020 about dissident artists from around the world, with related programming. That directly connects to Czechoslovakian history, as artists under Communist rule from 1948 to 1989, including past Czech President Václav Havel, were monitored and sometimes jailed by their government. At one time, people needed a license to own a typewriter, because writers were considered potentially dangerous, and only state-sanctioned artists were allowed to produce work.
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“You don’t have to be Czech or Slovak to appreciate what it’s like to live under communism and appreciate the lessons that come from that. If not for a few things that happened in history, we could live under a totally different type of government and not have the freedoms that we have,” Naughton said.
The museum’s “national” moniker is important — it draws visitors from across the country and internationally. Prominent Czechs and Slovaks, like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, have offered it their assistance, as has the Czech embassy. During the Floods of 2008, the Czech government donated 10 million crowns — at the time about $600,000 — to flood recovery in Cedar Rapids. Some of that was for the inundated museum, but money also went to the efforts like rebuilding the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
Naughton said working on behalf of the museum often means working on behalf of Cedar Rapids.
“There’s another layer to this job, where we’re representing Cedar Rapids nationally and internationally,” she said. “Being able to take that story out and represent it on a national level is a great privilege.”
“People ask, why isn’t this museum in Chicago? I tell them it is because the people in Cedar Rapids did it. They started a museum, they built a following, they had the three presidents here,” she said, referring to when Bill Clinton, Czech President Václav Havel, and Slovak President Michal Kovac came to Cedar Rapids to dedicate the museum in 1995. “This museum is owned by the community. Yes, it’s about Czech and Slovak culture, but it’s also representative of Cedar Rapids.”
“If this museum was in Chicago, we wouldn’t be nearly so successful. There, we’d just be another museum, an itty-bitty one. Here, we can make a difference for the community.”
And, of course, she’s enjoyed the more lighthearted aspects of running the museum.
“We have Houby Days and bring in dancers and puppet shows. Culture is big and wide, and we need to celebrate it all.”
The museum will hold a retirement reception for Naughton from 5 to 7 p.m. on June 20. Museum Director of Marketing and Communications Forrest Meyer said the search for Naughton’s replacement is ongoing.
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The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library will hold a reception for its outgoing president and CEO, Gail Naughton, from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.