CEDAR RAPIDS — Melissa Porter took the history of Brucemore to the streets of Cedar Rapids this spring, marking in sidewalk chalk the locations affected by the 1919 Douglas Starch Works explosion.
It’s that kind of ingenuity and a passionate belief that the community can benefit from what Brucemore has to offer that won the 26-year-old museum program manager the 2019 Iowa Museum Association Rising Star Award.
Porter will be presenting on the Douglas Starch Works explosion program Oct. 7 at the Iowa Museum Association conference in Fort Dodge.
The program originally took place May 22 in Cedar Rapids to mark 100 years since the “day that shook the city.”
On May 22, 1919, a small fire at Douglas Starch Works, a company owned by the family that resided at Brucemore, created an explosion, killing 44 people, shattering windows and damaging homes, schools and shops.
The museum honored the centennial of the explosion by fanning out across the city and talking about the people affected by the explosion.
“The program was an experiment and a chance for us to try something we don’t often do, and that was so invigorating about it,” Porter said. “You got to try something different and engage with the community.”
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Porter said marking the streets in chalk, for instance, allowed people to discover and explore the history of the Douglas Starch Works explosion and connect to the people who lived in the city 100 years ago.
“(We’re) taking the programming to the people,” she said.
The centennial event also included community conversations with the African American Museum of Iowa, the Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and the University of Iowa Labor Center about race relations, immigration policies and labor issues that shaped the era when the explosion took place.
Porter wants Brucemore to tell the history of not just the family that lived at the Cedar Rapids estate but of all the people who made the estate work. So many people connected with Brucemore shaped what Cedar Rapids is today, she said.
“People of history are only important to us because of the connections we can form with them,” Porter said. “There’s value in knowing names and dates, but there’s more value in knowing they are people, friends and neighbors who lived a robust life.”
Porter, a Mount Vernon native, began her career at Brucemore when she still was a student at Iowa State University. She wanted to test the waters of a museum career and thought volunteering as a tour guide at Brucemore would be a great way to get experience.
After graduating from Iowa State in 2014, she got her master’s in museum studies from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, she learned from museum curators for the Smithsonian.
After graduating, she moved back to Eastern Iowa and applied for an open position at Brucemore.
“The people I work with today are the people who inspired me to become a museum professional. That’s incredible. I don’t think that’s an opportunity people get very often,” Porter said.
Part of what Porter loves about history is getting to know people of the past and getting an understanding of them. It creates empathy, she said.
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“You get a glimpse into their lives and have a chance to understand what it might have been like for them to live,” Porter said. “I think that helps us create better connections with other people contemporary with us. Empathy is a powerful thing to be able to carry throughout life.”
Porter was surprised to be awarded the Rising Star Award. Her co-workers didn’t even tell her they nominated her.
“Because I have so much respect for the people who were involved in nominating me, I think this win actually means more,” Porter said. “Of course, it’s an honor to be awarded, but then to hear from your co-workers who have written letters of support, that’s especially touching.”
David Janssen, executive director of Brucemore, said Porter is an “exceptional employee.”
“I have no doubt that she will continue to make an impact in the museum community for the entirety of her career,” he said.
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