PRESERVING THE PAST: The Good, the Bad and the Museum


One of the many items tucked away into drawers within the Calhoun County Museum was this tiny chair set inside of a glass Listerine bottle. [Photo courtesy of Dale Gentry]
By: 
Lynne Gentry
Special to The Graphic-Advocate

Do you remember watching “Hee Haw” on TV?

In one segment, “Oh, that’s bad, no that’s good,” a performer would start a sad story to which another would say, “Oh, that’s bad.” The first would reply, “No, that’s good” and proceed to tell why. That exchange would continue until the final punch line.

As volunteer collections manager and curator at the county museum, I feel as if the museum has been trapped in one of those skits for the last six months.

The first bad occurred a winter ago, when an ice dam formed on the roof above what had been the large band room when the school occupied the building. When the ice began to melt, the roof leaked causing ceiling damage.

The soggy ceiling material fell to the floor. That was good, because the chunks missed the objects on display. However, the water soaked the carpet.

Discussions began on what to do with the large room named “The Mall.” Those familiar with the museum know the room housed a dental office, an optometrist’s office, a medical office, a beauty and barbershop, a sweet shop and a complete general store.

The thought of moving that collection stalled discussions several times. That’s bad.

Actually, that was good as in that time span, the museum applied for and was awarded a Community Foundation grant that will partially pay for repair and refurbishment. You guessed it. That’s bad too, as now all that room’s contents had to be moved.

I hate to say that the COVID-19 situation is a good, but in a strange way, it helped. The museum board chose to cancel events using the gymnasium this season.

That’s bad, yet three board member and two spouses spent two days moving the collection. The items filled seven long banquet tables and half the gymnasium floor space.  

Good came out of the move, as items tucked into drawers saw the light of day for the first time in years. The picture shows the tiny chair inside a small Listerine bottle.

The bad attaches here, as there was no documentation. Who managed to construct the chair in the bottle? As it was in a medical office drawer, was it a surgeon’s hobby? 

Questions also arose over the box of tiny baby and child sized rubber gloves. Under what circumstances did a child wear them?

The room also yielded heavy reminders of epidemics and pandemics of the past. I wished that previous curators had dated the large quarantine signs as they cover a range of diseases that created many of the child graves in the county. 

Isolation and quarantine signs warn of mumps and whooping cough. 

The measles sign says “No one may enter or leave the premises.  It is a misdemeanor 1) To expose a minor child to this disease 2) To remove this placard without authority.” 

The scarlet fever sign adds a third caution that any susceptible child may not return to school. Several signs caution quarantine for infantile paralysis, the first name given to polio. To me, those quarantine signs show hope. 

We will find a way to make the present virus as “historical” as those on the signs.

The remaining carpet has been removed and the contractor has visited.  Work will progress as it can.  Plans include new flooring surfaces and new paint on the walls.  Then will come the challenge of creating the displays in a refreshed room for 2021.

The final “that’s bad” at the museum does go to the impact of COVID-19. After studying the Iowa Museum Association guidelines for re-opening during the pandemic, the board chose to exercise caution and remain closed this summer. 

Most of the board members and volunteers who host tours at the museum are in the most vulnerable age group. Others have underlying health issues. The amount of cleaning and disinfecting suggested is overwhelming in a space the size of the museum and the board wants to keep public health at the forefront.

I have been asked to extend an invitation to contact the museum if you have a specific need in genealogy or research of some kind. Call the museum number and leave a message. 

Board members check messages several times a week and will contact you. My board member husband and I have volunteered to host such visits. We do ask that you wear a mask.

Should pandemic circumstances change dramatically for the good, the board may consider a short opening period in the fall.

In the meantime, work goes on at the museum, both the bad and the good.

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