How Old is Old?: The Otoe County Museum of Memories

A familiar question that I get is how old does an artifact have to be before a museum takes it into its collection? Obviously, it depends upon the mission of the museum; if the mission does not go beyond the 1870’s, then all of the artifacts are old by most people’s standards. However, if the mission is simply to collect and preserve the material history of a county or region then “how old is old?” takes on new meaning. While everyone assumes that something has to be old to be in a museum, this is simply not true. As long as an artifact is meaningful to the mission of the museum, then it has a place in the collection. To provide an example, prior to becoming the Director of the Nebraska City Museum Association, I was the Director of the Institute of Industrial Technology in Newark, Ohio. Its name changed to simply “The Works”, the museum focused on the industrial history and technology of the county. That county still had over 60 manufacturers, many household names. While we looked to collect artifacts representing all of the past manufacturers, I was more than happy to accept the first of a new product coming off the assembly line. While it may not be old now, it eventually would be and its significance was that it was the first piece off of the line. A good example of “not old but significant” is one of the new temporary exhibits that will be on display at the Otoe County Museum of Memories in Syracuse. Opening Sunday, May 7, from 1:30 – 4:00 and continuing on Sundays through the summer, the exhibit focuses on spring fashions; primarily on men’s sports coats from the 1960s and on. While this may not seem old to a number of us, it is fun to see what we as a culture thought was fashionable just 40 years ago. Their other exhibit features uniforms worn by men from Otoe County who participated in World War I to commemorate the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into the Great War. While only one of the displays may be considered ‘old’, they both emphasize that a museum’s collection does not have to be old, just significant.

Attracting Local Visitors

One of the greatest complaints of museums, even on a national scale, is the limited number of local visitors. Efforts such as special events and speaker series are offered aimed at just this audience and yet local attendance is still less than what is hoped. In most cases it is not necessarily due to lack of awareness or apathy; it’s more a matter of priorities. As I always tell the museums’ board members and volunteers, “It is easier to get a visitor from a hundred miles away than ten blocks.” The reasoning is simple, when an individual or family leave town on either a vacation or just a day-trip, they have undedicated time. With this free time, they are more apt to visit attractions, which includes museums; many see museums as entertainment as much as education. However, once they return home; that undedicated time disappears. Now their time is occupied with work, home care, children or grandchildren activities, special interests and a host of other obligations which absorb any free time. In addition, to this is the mentality that the museums are always there creating a “maybe tomorrow” mentality. In the case of visiting local museums, that tomorrow could be as much as ten years away. One opportunity that Nebraska City residents have which many other communities cannot offer is the “Nebraska City Museums Residents Program.” This program is made possible in part through a grant from the Nebraska City Growth Fund, formerly known as the LB-840 Fund, which assists nine of the community’s ten museums with stipends allowing for the hiring of part-time seasonal attendants. This allows even the smaller museums to offer regular open hours during the summer months. A perk associated with the Nebraska City Growth Fund is free admission to the nine museums for all Nebraska City residents. As this is local sales tax money in use, residents living in the 68410 zip code merely need to show proof of residency to visit the museums. It does not limit the number of visits, which creates the opportunity of stopping in at one of the museums just for a peek to see if it is something that is interesting enough to make a return visit when more time is available. Taking advantage of this unique opportunity may surprise you with what Nebraska City’s museums actually offer. Whether it is for the first time or a visit to see the improvements made during the winter, you may find that extra time in an otherwise busy schedule to enjoy the community’s museums.

Putting a Twist on Exhibitions: The Wildwood Historic Center

While some museums just stick to the basic interpretation of their mission and collections, others seek to creatively interpret theirs. Usually done in temporary exhibits; the goal is to draw in new or repeat visitors to see the collection in a whole new light. While some museums go for the dramatic, others guide towards the whimsical showing the ‘fun’ side of history. A great example of this is the upcoming temporary exhibit at the Wildwood Historic Center. On display only for Arbor Day Weekend, April 28 – 30, the exhibit is titled “Edwardians Unlaced & Unbuttoned-What?” During that weekend, the Wildwood House will feature displays of Edwardian clothing; the last period of the Victorian Era. Essentially 1901 to 1910, the fashions of the era can also be marked from 1890 to the beginning of World War I. The emphasis of his exhibit will be on the undergarments. There will be unlaced corsets lying about and more ‘modern’ camisoles displayed, including a few pieces of men’s undergarments. The clothes on the mannequins will be left intentionally unbuttoned so their undergarments are revealed. While the Wildwood Historic Center has a pretty extensive collection of clothing, additional artifacts on display are on loan from the Syracuse Museum of Memories. This is a great opportunity for a history lesson of the fashions of the last century. Flipping through a book or searching internet may give you a better idea of the clothing of the period but odds are they will not give a ‘behind the scenes’ images like you will see in this temporary exhibit. As it is the beginning of the tourism season, like during the past several years, local visitors receive free admission to the Historic Center.

Coming Up With the Other Half: The Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting

Recently, Nebraska City’s museums were awarded a grant from the Nebraska City Growth Fund, formerly known as LB-840. In its seventh year, the grant provides a stipend for the participating museums to hire a part-time attendant during the summer months. Primarily intended to allow the museums to offer regular visitation hours during the peak tourism season; as the funds come from the city’s sales tax, all residents in the 68410 zip code receive free admission to the museums. While each museum receives $2,000 to pay an attendant, this is only half of what the actual cost of employing front desk personnel in addition to the added costs of operations by being open. Nationally, visitor admissions only make up roughly 15 percent of a museum’s operational budget; the rest must be raised through membership and fund-raising. The actual cost of having an employee even for the minimum of hours required by the grant, Friday through Sunday, noon to four, is roughly $4,000. Each of Nebraska City’s museums makes up the difference in their own way; some comes from donations, others from membership and finally the rest hold fund-raisers. Fund-raising events themselves are time consuming and often do not raise much money themselves. However, public events do two things; they show the public that the museum needs money and most importantly is willing to work for it. A great example of this is the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting’s Annual Super Bowl Soup Luncheon. Held in the Nebraska City Volunteer Fire Department, this year’s event will be Sunday, February 5, from 11:00 to 1:00. The volunteer firefighters each bring in a crock pot of soup which distributes the work and offers a great variety of soups as well as an opportunity to socialize with other community members during Nebraska’s cold weather. A free will offering for the luncheon is asked with all of the proceeds benefiting the Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting. And yes these funds will be used to pay utility bills as well as making up the difference in paying attendants. So don’t think that the museums are just getting a free hand-out; they are working as well to ensure that the museums are open during the summer. Some just have to start earlier than others. IF YOU GO Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting Super Bowl Soup Luncheon Sunday, February 5, 11:00 – 1:00 Nebraska City Volunteer Fire Department 1409 Central Avenue, Nebraska City

What is a Chautauqua?

If you haven’t heard already, you soon will that a Chautauqua to be held in Nebraska City this June. The question on most people’s minds is what is a Chautauqua? While the modern interpretation of the four day event is now more historic in nature, Chautauquas actually have religious roots. Named after Chautauqua Lake in the resort district of New York, held in 1874, it was organized by a Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent. Created for Sunday school teachers, it essentially was an outdoor summer school. Held under a large tent in rural areas, the concept of three to four day outdoor event caught America’s attention. Running up until the 1920s, traveling Chautauquas made their way through rural regions of the United States featuring speakers, sermons, music, and entertainment. Before the age of radio, residents of these sparsely populated areas were starving for information and entertainment. After World War I, interest in the outdoor format lost interest nationally as the growing radio and movie industries made access to information and entertainment more convenient. In the late 1970s and 80s, the Chautauqua format experienced a renaissance. However, this time it has become historical in nature. Now the primary speakers portray a specific individual in history as that person; this is known as ‘first person’ in living history terms. Sponsored by Nebraska Humanities and the National Humanities Councils, only two Chautauquas are held in the state each year. This year, Seward is the other community hosting the event. Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I, the theme is “World War I: Legacies of a Forgotten War”. While the special event in Nebraska City will be June 21 through the 24, Peru State College will also host activities the two days prior to its coming to Nebraska City. During the day, seminars and a youth Chautauqua camp will be held at venues around the community. At night, the featured speakers will present in the Nebraska City High School Auditorium. In addition to the Humanities support, local donors have also made the event possible; admission to all of the activities is free. So now you know what a Chautauqua is. Over the next several months there will be speakers and activities to build interest and awareness of the June event. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the impact of World War I on Nebraska as well as Nebraska City; and impress people with the fact that you know what a Chautauqua is.

Catering to Local Visitors: The MRB Lewis & Clark Center

All museums strive to better serve their audience, whether it is through new exhibits, programs, or preservation of their collection. However, depending on the time of the year, it is not unusual to focus on serving a specific part of the audience such as local visitors. During the spring and summer months, museums will advertise their exhibits or events to a larger area; travel conditions are better, and visitors tend to come from a farther distance. However, in the winter time, the cold and difficult road conditions tend to keep potential visitors closer to home. From January through March, many of Nebraska City’s museums will be offering programming specifically targeting Nebraska City area visitors. While the events tend to be smaller in scale compared to summer events, they offer an excuse to get out of the house and learn something new. Nebraska City’s Lewis and Clark Center is kicking off the 2017 winter season with several informal events. The events begin on first day of the year. On Sunday, January 1st, the Center is cooperating with Waubonsie State Park by opening its trails for the “First Day Hike”. "First Day Hikes" are part of a nationwide initiative led by America’s State Parks to get people outdoors, with over 400 hikes scheduled this year in all 50 states. Following the event; on Friday, January 6, and every Friday following through February, the Center will be hosting its “Brown Bagging with the Birds”. This informal event is held from 12:00 – 1:00 on the Center’s main level. Participants are asked to bring their own lunch and enjoy watching our winter birds from the comfort of inside the Center. A local bird watcher will be on hand to assist in identifying our feathered friends. So while many spend their winter months hibernating, for those of you who enjoy what nature offers when it is cold and snowy; the Lewis and Clark Center has events planned just for you. As we get closer to February and March, I will showcase more events the museums are planning to serve our local visitors. IF YOU GO Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Center 100 Valmont Lane Nebraska City, NE 402-874-9900 Winter hours begin October 1 and end April 30. Hours are 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday and 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Sundays. During the winter months of December, January and February, the Center is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but can open on those days by appointment.

Interpreting the Bigger Picture: Kregel Windmill Factory Museum

While each museum must interpret their specific mission, whether it’s a specific history or technology, sometimes interpreting a similar topic within the region is beneficial.  It can show how a particular museum’s mission falls into the regional or national scope. Although known primarily for agriculture, Nebraska, and Nebraska City, have their own legacy of industrial manufacturing.  Many well known national companies such as Faultless Casters and Argo Starch have their origins in Nebraska City.  While these companies were lured away to other states offering either better transportation routes or proximity to primary markets or raw materials; many of Nebraska City’s early industries such as the Kregel Windmill Factory faded away as emerging technologies passed them by.  Why some companies were able to adapt to new manufacturing trends and public demands while others could or would not is a topic that can be seen on a national stage. A great example of a regional company that was able to adapt and thrive through changing times is the Cushman Motor Works Company of Lincoln.  On Saturday evening, November 5, the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum will be hosting Dr. Mary Kay Quinlan of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications. At 7:00 that evening Quinlan will present “The People Who Made it Work; A Centennial History of the Cushman Motor Works”. As this is a Humanities Nebraska event, there is no admission to the museum or presentation. This is a great opportunity to learn more about a regionally well known company as well as learning the lesson of adaptability in changing times.  It is such another example of how a museum can show how its mission fits into the region’s overall history. IF YOU GO Kregel Windmill Factory Museum 1416   Central Avenue Nebraska City, NE Phone: 402-873-1078 Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 10am-5pm, Sunday: noon-5pm. Monday: Closed

Wrapping up the Tourism Season

As we near the end of October, a majority of Nebraska City’s museums are preparing to close their doors for the year.  While a few remain open all year long, even they reduce their open hours for the winter season.  The reasoning is simple; in this region of the country the tourism season is primarily in the summer and fall months.  With fewer visitors coming in the doors, the cost of maintaining a comfortable temperature in the museums and staffing the front desk is not feasible. This does not mean that the museums are idle.  In some aspects the winter months can be busier than the summer ones.  With no visitors to work around, this is the time when new exhibits can be built and installed, and internal restorations or repairs made.  Most of the time is spent planning for the next season’s events.  2017 will be an exceptionally busy year for the museums in regards to events and programs.  Adding to the normally planned summer events are the commemoration of the State’s 150th anniversary as well as the National Park Service’s annual Chautauqua which will be held in Nebraska City next year.  While the museums will be celebrating the state’s anniversary, they will also be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United State’s entrance into World War I. Critical to this planning is the passing of the re-approval of the LB-840 program by Nebraska City’s citizens in November.  This economic development tool uses a small portion of the city’s sales taxes to support potential and improve existing businesses in an effort to increase sales taxes especially from out-of area visitors.  The museums receive a very small percentage of this fund annually to provide staffing to keep their doors open and attract visitors to the community.  While the voting against the measure will not lower taxes, it will have a profound negative impact on what the city can offer to new businesses and also to the accessibility of the museums. With only two weeks before the small museums close for the season, I encourage all local visitors to take advantage of what the LB-840 programs contribution offers; free admission to the museums to all local residents.  While all of the museums will offer additional programs during the 2017 tourism season, they may be doing it with limited hours and will be forced to charge our local supporters to attend these events.  All in all, 2017 should be a very interesting year, but it all begins during the winter months. IF YOU GO The Nebraska City Museums’ Residents Program Ends the last weekend of October, FridaySunday, noon-4:00. Civil War Veterans Museum, Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, Mayhew Cabin, Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Center, Nebraska City Museum of Firefighting, Nelson House, Old Freighters Museum, River Country Nature Center, and Wildwood Historic Center.

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Nebraska City "Red to the Core"