CEDAR RAPIDS — The lure of history pulled Tara Templeman out of prehistory.
The History Center’s new curator and collections manager began her academic focus in paleontology, naming a new genus and species of multituberculate during her graduate studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“The entire order is extinct, so there’s really no modern equivalent at all,” she said of the tiny mammals she examined under a microscope to count and measure the cusps on their tiny teeth. “Mostly they were arboreal, so they lived on trees. It’s kind of similar to a squirrel, but not very closely related.”
Then a coursework requirement changed the course of her work.
To fulfill the internship component for her graduate degree, she volunteered at the local history museum two blocks from her house.
“I was so excited about more modern history, because when you’re writing about fossil mammals that have been extinct for 20 million years, there’s four or five other people in the field who care about what you’re studying,” she said. “When you work in a history museum, your entire community can care about what it is that you’re studying.
“To just be less technical and to get involved with different programs and make those connections to people’s daily lives was so exciting for me that I never went back to doing paleontology.”
Since Dec. 16, the new Cedar Rapids resident, 27, has been immersed in Linn County history, as well as expanding the knowledge of her own family history. Moving to Iowa brings the Houston-area native closer to her father’s birth family in west-central Iowa.
“The opportunity to move here was attractive,” she said, “in part because I got to know a bunch of family members — aunts and uncles and cousins and people who I had never met before.”
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She’s now knee-deep in exploring the history of her new surroundings, climbing up a very steep learning curve.
“I think it’s a little bit disorienting to arrive in any new place and to quickly be expected to be an expert on the history of that place, because anyone you meet has more knowledge than you,” she said. “So I have been enjoying digging into a lot of different history of Cedar Rapids. There’s so much to learn, and I’m not going to be an expert overnight, but I’m excited about the new exhibit that we’re developing right now because it focuses on women’s history.”
It’s tied to the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Tentatively set to open in the spring, the exhibit will feature Linn County women and their early 20th-century jobs. She expected to find teachers and nurses in the work force, but was pleasantly surprised to also find female doctors, a dentist, principals and business owners in the mix.
Every day can hold surprises like that.
“The day-to-day of a curator can look pretty different. That’s one of the things I really like about the job,” she said. “There are no two days that look exactly the same.”
If volunteers aren’t on duty in the research library, Templeman can step in to assist people who want to learn more about their family’s Linn County history or the history of the home in which they now live, and its earlier occupants. She also manages the volunteers.
But mostly, she spends a great deal of time processing the museum’s collection, which has more than 60,000 pieces.
“Depending on the type of material, they all require different care,” she said. “That’s why you have to go to graduate school, because caring for different kinds of collections can be complicated.”
Caring for a book differs from caring for a silver plate, she noted, so items need to be stored according to their requirements, in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments — either at the museum or in the museum’s storage space at an undisclosed local location.
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Managing the collection also means “describing, photographing, measuring every item that comes into the collection, and everything that comes in gets its own unique number,” she said. “I’ve got a specific numbering system for tracking everything in our collection, which sometimes is pretty easy. But we recently got a dollhouse donated and every item of furniture needs its own number, so sometimes that can be quite time-consuming.”
She’s especially excited about the dollhouse — a replica of Cedar Rapids home that’s no longer standing.
“It tells a really cool history, but it definitely takes some time to go through and process that correctly,” she said.
Next comes telling the artifacts’ stories.
“Museums are weird in that once an object comes into the museum, it ceases to be what it was like,” she said. “Once a chair is in a museum, no one will ever sit in it again. It’s not a chair anymore — it’s the story about the chair. So the most important thing when we accept any object into our collection is that we get the story behind the object, and that’s how we develop our exhibits.”
They’re housed on the second floor of the Douglas Mansion, once home to Brucemore families and later converted into a mortuary, with architectural embellishments by artist Grant Wood, whose studio next door is where he painted “American Gothic.”
“That makes for more interesting exhibits,” Templeman said, “because you’ve got the two stories to tell. We’re interpreting the general history of one county, but we’re also interpreting the history of this building and the people who lived here (and) all of the conversions that happened.”
In telling stories about the region, its activities and artifacts, “we are essentially interpreting the culture of a place by interpreting the history of it,” she said.
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