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'Linn There, Done That' History Center creating online portals to the past

Rick Larson of Brandon explores the exhibits at the grand opening of The History Center in the Douglas Mansion in Cedar
Rick Larson of Brandon explores the exhibits at the grand opening of The History Center in the Douglas Mansion in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 13, 2018. While the center’s door are now closed in keeping with COVID-19 safety protocols, people can still connect with Linn County’s past through ramped-up efforts on the center’s website and social media. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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During this history-making period, The History Center has shut its front doors and flung open its windows online.

“We try to stay relevant on social media, by posting historical pictures or stories on a regular basis,” said Jenny Thielman, program manager at the center, 800 Second Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids. “But this has really pushed us outside our comfort zone and made us think outside the box, on how can we deliver on our mission without having people physically come to us? ...

“We’ve been trying to get creative as to how we can provide programming in a unique way,” she said. “That’s why we came up with some of the online trivia games, the guess-the-artifact games, the short videos that we’ve posted on social media — to try to get people still thinking about The History Center and providing fun activities for families while they’re cooped up at home.”

And while the staff is working from home and especially missing the school groups that would walk through history at the converted Douglas Mansion, one school group has created a signature project that’s finding renewed life online.

Walking tours

Cedar Rapids and Marion area high school students enrolled in the Iowa BIG extended learning program partnered with The History Center during the 2015-2016 school year to create “Linn There, Done That.”

Thielman said now was the perfect time to rerelease this virtual walking tour through Cedar Rapids, Ely and the village of Western, once home to Western College.

It’s a glimpse at the area’s “hidden history,” from Linn County’s earliest days in 1870, to the 21st century. Sites to explore include The Eastern Iowa Airport, performing arts venues, downtown anchor stores like Smulekoff’s, NewBo sites, Kirkwood Community College and Westdale Mall.

Daytime walking tours along city blocks, alleys and the skywalk system typically draw 20 to 30 people, depending on the weather, Thielman said. Those have been put on hold during this period of social distancing, but families and individuals can create their own walking or driving tours, using “Linn There, Done That” as a reference point.

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Click on the link at Historycenter.org/linn-there-done-that so see a list of addresses and buildings, then click on each one to hear its history.

“Some people may choose to do that from the comfort of their home, or they could hop in the car and drive around and see these different buildings, and not even have to get out,” Thielman said. “They can just pull over and read about the building.”

Getting involved

Finding ways to engage all ages through The History Center is all in a day’s work for Thielman, 42, of Cedar Rapids. She grew up in Minneapolis, followed her family to Cedar Rapids after graduating from college 18 years ago, and has been at the center for three years, planning programs, events and fundraisers.

“Part of our mission is to preserve our history and continue to tell the stories and to connect our past to our present,” she said. “One of my jobs is to appeal to the masses. Not only do I need to appeal to an older demographic, but I also have to try to appeal to a younger demographic, and offer programs and activities and things that are going to get kids interested in history, for us to continue to push our mission forward.”

One of the newer initiatives is the Family Oral History Project, challenging families to come up with questions, then record interviews with family members, friends or neighbors over a platform like Zoom and post on social media, tagging The History Center. Instructions and guidelines are posted at Historycenter.org/

It’s designed “to get kids to understand the importance of history and why it’s important to capture those stories — to get excited about history now so they will always be interested in continuing to preserve our stories,” Thielman said.

It’s a spinoff of the center’s popular “Oral Histories LIVE!” in which people who have helped shape Linn County are interviewed in front of a live audience, in a manner akin to “Inside the Actors Studio.” The interviews are then transcribed for posterity. As with all other in-person experiences, the May 12 interview with Marion Mayor Nick AbouAssaly is on hold.

Thielman suggested parents also encourage their kids start recording their own thoughts during this “unprecedented” period.

“Getting the kids to think about what they’re feeling and going through and perhaps journaling that information and keeping that, so they can tell their grandchildren someday, ‘When I was your age, we had this big pandemic and everything shut down.’ You don’t think about that as a younger person, that I should maybe be writing this down,” she said.

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The online trivia and artifact games are other ways to pull the past into the present, and by posting them online, people far outside Linn County — even in other states — have been playing along. The History Center also is partnering with some of the smaller historical societies in the area to broaden and develop online quizzes.

The artifact game, posted on the front page at Historycenter.org, is designed for families to play together and augment their home schooling efforts, now that schools are closed for the remainder of the school year.

“It’s fun to hear what their guesses are, and it might strike up some really fun and entertaining conversation, that things were different way back when,” Thielman said. “We still use the same type of household items, but they just look different. Technology has come a long way.”

The homepage also has a link to a coloring project that can be started at home, and when the center reopens, participants can bring in the book, receive a discount on admission and finish the scavenger hunt.

This combination of history and entertainment is a way to get kids away from video games and pique their interest in visiting the center later on, Thielman said.

For more videos — including Grown-Up Show-N-Tell, games, a virtual tour through a dollhouse, discussions on Live from the Linge Round Room and Linn County Legacies — click on the video link at Facebook.com/HistoryLinnCoIA/

More Online

• What: The History Center, 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

• Website: Historycenter.org/

• Twitter: Twitter.com/HistoryLinnCoIA

• Instagram: Instagram.com/historylinncoia/

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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