David Muhlena of NCSML Speaks to LISSO

David Muhlena of NCSML Speaks to LISSO

David Muhlena, the Library Director of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, spoke at the monthly LISSO meeting Monday, November 7. He briefed students on the history behind early Czech immigration to Iowa and talked about how the museum and library has dealt with the damage caused by the flooding in 2008.

The museum and library was started in the 1970s by local second- and third-generation descendants of Czech immigrants who were worried their community as a whole was losing their heritage. They started the Czech Fine Arts Foundation, which was a pre-cursor to the current National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. The collection was aimed at preserving their material culture, things like folk costumes, glassware, and porcelain. A community exhibit created from temporary loans of objects for individuals was put on display at the Cedar Rapids Art Museum, which soon blossomed into a museum and and library of its own. The organization moved to a small house in the Czech village, then to a larger building on their current campus. In 1992, the organization received Congressional recognition and two years later a new building was dedicated and opened to the public. President Bill Clinton of the United States, President Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, and President Michal Kovác of the Slovak Republic presided at the dedication. "That really put our institution on the map, nationally. And some people still talk about, 'Oh I was at the dedication' as a point of pride." Muhlena points out.

The institution had about 10,000 catalogued items in their collection when disaster struck in 2008. Despite their disaster plan and, exceeding all of the predicted flood levels, the building was inundated with flood water which caused over $11 million in damage. "A disaster plan is not just a hassle: it does serve a purpose. While ours was not as comprehensive as we wished it had been, it did list the priorities of which items to move out first," said Muhlena. Between the time they had been warned about the rising waters and when they had to be evacuated from the premises, they only had two and a half days to move things out of the museum with the help of volunteers and trailers. Everything that was left in the building was moved to above table-height: "based on the information that they had at the time, [they were told] that we might have a couple inches to a couple feet within the facility." The total of 8 feet that ended up flooding the building was shocking. Much of their foreign language materials as well as the museum's extensive phonograph record collection were damaged. "We were very fortunate that the flood waters came up fast, and they dropped fast," said Muhlena, pointing out that if the flood waters had stayed for weeks everything left in the building would have been lost.

Nancy Kraft and the University of Iowa Preservation staff came up to volunteer with first-response disaster recovery. "The University of Iowa Preservation Lab had the week off because they were being evacuated because of flooding on the Iowa River, so they were sent home and they came and said, 'We're here to help' and it was such a God-send" Muhlena remembers. "Nancy Kraft is one of the leading people in the nation on disaster preparedness and response so who better to help advise us?… It was such a blessing that this group of people were just right down the road." The road to recovery has been slow, but the University of Iowa Preservation Lab continues to work with CSML to help them repair and reclaim as much of their damaged collection as possible.