Traveling from Iowa to Washington, D.C., isn’t advised during the current pandemic, but a piece of Washington, D.C., is coming to Iowa this week. First stop: Cedar Rapids.
“Voices and Votes: Democracy in America” — based on an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History — is opening Friday at the African American Museum of Iowa in southeast Cedar Rapids. A companion exhibit drawn from the collections of five local museums is on view now through Aug. 16 in the library portion of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, across the 12th Avenue Bridge in Czech Village.
The two local museums on either side of the Cedar River are partnering with the Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street District for this endeavor.
Main Street Iowa put out a call last fall to the state’s 55 Main Street districts, and with the two local museums onboard, the Cedar Rapids district applied and was chosen to be a host site.
“I think it was because we’re using multiple locations,” said Abby Huff, executive director of the Czech Village New Bohemia Main Street District. “We’re drawing people both into the African American Museum of Iowa and also the National Czech Museum.”
The bulk of the touring exhibit costs are being borne at the national and state level, with the local district spending under $1,000 for such things as advertising, which Huff said is in line with the district’s regular programming costs.
“It wasn’t a large cost for us,” she said. “That’s the great thing about these Museum on Main (exhibits) — the Smithsonian works really hard to make sure it’s not a burden on the (host) organizations.”
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The touring exhibit contains about a dozen cases housing materials related to significant social and political movements such as political campaigns, the Civil Rights Movement and the Suffragette movement, said Felicite Wolfe, curator at the African American Musuem.
“It starts with the founding of the country with the war for independence and development of laws and the Constitution and follows the ideas of government and citizenship through present day,” Wolfe said.
Displayed in the museum’s temporary exhibition space, visitors will see text panels supplemented with graphics and photographs, object cases, and interactives, including flipbooks and touch-screen videos.
“The Smithsonian has done a great job of mixing various items to create an engaging exhibit,” which explores several themes, Wolfe said.
“It starts by setting the stage with looking at why the American Revolution was fought, and the new government that was established,” she said. “While it was a radical idea at the time to be governed without a monarch, a government by and for the people did not include everyone.
“Over time, many questions have been raised that we continue to debate today and are looked at in themes throughout the exhibit, such as who has the right to vote? What are the freedoms and responsibilities of citizens? Whose voices will be heard? How do you participate as a citizen?”
Those questions dovetail with the museum’s mission to preserve and teach Iowa’s African American history, she added.
“The exhibit includes the counter narratives of those that were not included in the original documents of the Founding Fathers: women, Indigenous peoples, immigrant populations, and African American and Black stories,” she said. “The African American and Black narrative has existed since the founding of our country and is placed throughout this exhibit, from revolutionary fighters to slave rebellions to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.”
It’s designed to engage all ages, and Wolfe encourages families to view it together.
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“I think an important part of viewing this, or any exhibit, is for children to come as a family or with others,” she said, “to learn together and question and think about what they’re seeing and reading.
“Depending on the age of the child, the history they’re being taught isn’t always an accurate one or is not as in-depth as it should be. Exhibits help bridge the learning gaps. Seeing that current issues can be traced back through our country’s history is an invaluable way to give a basis of understanding (to issues) directly affecting their lives today.”
The companion exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library contains citizenship papers and information on Czech and Slovak immigrants who ran for public office. It also features artifacts relating to democracy from other museums in the city, including photographs of historical figures taken by Joan Liffring-Zug Bourret, from the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art; a display on the Equal Rights Amendment from The History Center; Vietnam War artifacts from the Veterans Museum Galleries; and items used within Masonic voting practices from the Masonic Library.
“We each have wildly different collections, and we don’t all collect U.S. history,” said Stefanie Kohn, curator at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. Admission to the library is free, she added, but visitors would need to buy a ticket to see the museum’s other exhibits.
Partnering with the traveling exhibit is a good fit for the Czech and Slovak Museum, too.
“We know that the majority of the Czech and Slovak immigrants wanted to become American citizens and wanted to participate in a democracy, because they didn’t have that,” Kohn said, except for a brief period from 1918 to 1935.
“Other than that, the immigrants were coming from a society that was not as free. They definitely wanted to be part of it, so becoming a citizen was a big step toward that.”
So they took English, civics and citizenship classes at night in order to pass the exam.
“These immigrants were really wanting to become part of the American story. They were actually having the American dream of a better life and freedom, owning property, owning a business, taking care of themselves, which they really wanted to do. So (the exhibit) fit really well with our immigrant story, because the people wanted to become an American, but they felt really good about keeping their Czech heritage alive. They’re American first and foremost, with a heritage they’re very proud of.”
The timing couldn’t be better for this Smithsonian tour, Wolfe said.
“We are all grappling with current issues in our country from voter rights and suppression, the pandemic and understanding race issues. I think this exhibit will provide much needed factual information for visitors — information that many of us have forgotten or never learned,” she said.
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“The power of being an informed citizen will help in aiding this country and our own communities to be better.”
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If you go
• What: “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America”
• Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
• Features: Traveling exhibit from Museum on Main Street, a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and State Humanities Councils nationwide
• When: Friday through Aug. 15
• Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Fridays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays
• Admission: $6 adults, $5 seniors, $3.50 students/youths, free under age 5 and museum members
• Details: Blackiowa.org/voicesandvotes/
• What: Local companion exhibit to “Voices and Votes: Democracy in America”
• Where: In the library at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
• Features: Items from the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, The History Center, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Masonic Library and the Veterans Museum Galleries
• When: Through Aug. 15
• Library hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
• Admission: Free for the library exhibit; regular prices for the rest of the museum’s galleries, which are open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday