Presidential milestone reverberates at Czech and Slovak National Museum in Cedar Rapids

Angel Rodriguez with Big Ten Rentals is pitching the corner of a large tent outside the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday. The tent will be used on Friday for the annual BrewNost international beer festival, as part of the museum’s 25th anniversary weekend celebration, which has been delayed for a year by the pandemic. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

Curator of the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library Stefanie Kohn (left) directs Peter Barta, a writer from the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava, Slovakia, and Branislav Panis, director of the Slovak National Museum, by positioning a display case in the “Treasures of Slovakia” on loan from the Bratislava Museum. The exhibition opens Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Museum and runs until March 20. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

Slovak President Michal Kovac (left), US President Bill Clinton (center) and Czech President Vaclav Havel greet each other on October 21, 1995, during the dedication ceremony of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids. The 25th anniversary of this historic event will be celebrated from Friday to Sunday at the museum. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – The cold day when three Presidents waved from the balcony of the new Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library at Cedar Rapids in 1995 created a ripple effect that continues to be felt locally, nationally and internationally.

President Bill Clinton, Czech President Vaclav Havel and Slovak President Michal Kovac were on hand that day to dedicate what continues to be North America’s only national museum dedicated to Czech and Slovak heritage.

And after the celebration on October 21, 1995, US Senator Tom Harkin told reporters, “It was a big event for Cedar Rapids. This is the first time that three presidents from three countries have visited Iowa. It is phenomenal.

This 25-year milestone should have been commemorated in 2020, but the event was delayed due to COVID-19 until this weekend, when three days of festivities will remind people of not only this historic gathering, but the plaza. current museum in the world.

The $ 80,000 celebration, funded by donations and corporate sponsors, attracts ambassadors and dignitaries from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as guests from across the United States.

“It makes me happy that we are living this kind of national reputation,” said Cecilia Rokusek of Cedar Rapids, president and CEO of the museum.

Weekend celebration

Or: Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

When: From Friday to Sunday September 17 to 19, 2021

Friday: BrewNost International Outdoor Beer Festival, VIP entry at 5:30 p.m., general admission at 6:30 p.m. and designated driver entry; tickets to

Saturday: Free activities: 10 am ribbon cutting and parade of traditional Kroje folk costumes; more programming on cinema at noon, visual arts at 1 p.m. and an author’s discussion at 2 p.m. Charged birthday dinner at 5:30 p.m. (registration closed);

Sunday: Free programs of films and exhibitions, from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Details: Go to

In the wings

The activities inside the museum almost 26 years ago were also monumental, when Clinton separately met Havel and Kovac in the museum library.

This is something that “a lot of people don’t know – it was extremely important to the wonderful dedication of our museum,” said Ann Poe of Cedar Rapids, a member of the museum’s board at the time. Poe used his connections with the Democratic Party and the White House to orchestrate the presidential rally to coincide with Havel and Kovac coming to the United States for the United Nations 50th anniversary commemorative session.

Anne Poe

“It was all the stars lining up well,” said Rod Jiruska of Cedar Rapids, chairman of the museum’s board at the time. “It all seemed to come together, and I had bet everything on Ann, that she had things so people could all get here at the same time.” “

“We’re still talking about it today,” said Gail Naughton of Cedar Rapids, the museum’s president and CEO from 2002 to 2018. “It’s a great source of pride for people of Czech origin in the community. Those who organized it, they achieved a feat that still frightens the mind today. Bringing these three men here was just amazing. It is still the only time that three heads of state have visited Iowa.

“It’s always a source of pride,” Naughton said, “and it’s so integrated into the museum and what it is.”

gail naughton

Presidential talks

Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, after the end of World War I, and separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. So the two were new countries when the presidents arrived at Cedar Rapids. It was their chance to speak privately with Clinton.

Poe noted that Havel wanted Clinton’s support to expand NATO to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, which happened on March 12, 1999.

Kovac, who was elected head of Slovakia in 1993, wanted Clinton’s advice on his candidacy for a second term, which Kovac did not win.

“They were having these conversations in our library which were extremely important to the sustainability and functioning of these two counties after their separation,” said Poe. “It was really a big deal on top of our dedication. The White House was working with the National Security Council, and that’s how some of these discussions took place.

“So it was just a wonderful opportunity for these three countries to have a conversation while they were all together,” she said. “It was a truly cold, but magical day.”

Raise the profile

The presidential visit also raised the visibility of the museum, attracting a diplomatic corps from the United States and abroad, as well as local and national media attention, and allowed the museum to continue to attract guests and exhibits. high level over the years.

“It has given us respect in the museum community, and probably even more importantly, in the larger Czech and Slovak community in the United States, and that’s key,” Naughton said. “When the museum was named and opened, you can call yourself the national museum, but it proved to us that we are truly respected around the world as a national museum.”

The presidential visit paved the way for the museum’s first exhibition, “A Thousand Years of Czech Culture: The Bounties of the National Museum in Prague”, in 1997, and “The Treasures of Slovakia”, which opens on Saturday and will be on view until ‘to March 20. .

Both feature artifacts that had not left their respective countries.

“The profile of the museum was very high,” said Dan Baldwin of Monterey, Calif., Who served as the museum’s first president and CEO from May 1996 to 2002.

Dan Baldwin

He said the museum’s profile extended to places “critical” for the development of the “Czech Culture” exhibit: the Old Salem Living History Museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which helped create the exhibition with the National Museum in Prague.

Baldwin attended the opening in Old Salem and began discussions with museum officials in Prague about the possibility of bringing the exhibit to Cedar Rapids.

“It was the combination of the three presidents, the building itself, and then the aspirations to be a national museum with an international mission,” Baldwin said. genre show ‘Thousand years of Czech culture.’

“It was a truly bold step and a leap of faith on the part of Old Salem and the National Museum (in Prague) to bring the exhibit to Cedar Rapids,” he said. “It was like raiding the Smithsonian.”

Building blocks

The museum’s reputation has grown steadily, but the glory celebrated today began with people who had been planning to preserve the region’s Czech heritage from its inception, Rokusek said.

The museum’s reach, however, goes beyond ethnic and cultural boundaries. The museum is a home for everyone, said Rokusek, highlighting the permanent exhibition “Faces of Freedom”, which talks about freedom, democracy and immigration, so that visitors can experience the differences and similarities in their own immigration stories.

It is also a place for all ages, with educational and awareness programs, as well as exhibits, designed to span generations.

“Baldwin and the founders built this great institution,” she said. “Now our challenge to preserve the past, celebrate the present and create the future is focused on the future. “

Cecilia Rokusek

But why here, why Cedar Rapids for this national facility?

Rokusek reported that Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was planting the seed of the museum, entering on the Congressional record on July 2, 1992, that the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library be established in Cedar Rapids.

For this act, he will receive the museum’s first award of distinction, which will be presented at the anniversary dinner on Saturday night in the museum’s ballroom.

And when Rokusek travels and is asked “Why Cedar Rapids”, his response is always the same:

“This is the best place it should be, because Czech and Slovak immigrants have settled here. Once, the city had a population of 28 percent Czech.

“Plus, we’re in the center of America, and if we were in a big city like New York or Chicago, we’d be lost. At Cedar Rapids, we bring people here not only to enjoy the library, but also to enjoy all the art centers, the city, NewBo, the Czech village and all of Cedar Rapids and the region. So I think it’s the right place because it’s in the center of America. ”

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The Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library started moving in July 2011 to Cedar Rapids. The museum, adjacent to the Cedar River, was badly damaged in the 2008 floods. It was renovated, relocated and reopened in July 2012. (The Gazette)

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