NCSML Facebook title

Top 5 reasons to visit Iowa’s National Czech and Slovak Museum

What does freedom mean to you? The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, answers that question in its “Faces of Freedom” exhibit. It says freedom can be “freedom from” or “freedom to.” Freedom from oppression, persecution, or fear. Freedom to live, travel, work, worship, and love.

Cedar Rapids Tourism sponsored my visit, but all opinions are my own.

The tan brick clock tower is west of the Lion Bridge. The metal arch above reads "Welcome to New Bohemia."
The clock tower and arch at the Lion Bridge.

Crossing the Bridge of Lions is like dropping into a fairy tale — and the stories include villains. Slovak and Czech history features plenty of villains. Heraldic lions guard the bridge against these evils. A clock tower resembling Karlštejn Castle protects the bridge’s southeastern approach. 

NCSML perches atop a hill, commanding a view of the Cedar River. Three Presidents dedicated it in 1996: Bill Clinton of the United States, Michael Kovak of the Slovak Republic, and Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic. The museum stood beside the river then, but 2008’s devastating flood forced it to rebuild on higher ground. The museum staff removed two truckloads of artifacts before the floodwaters arrived, prioritizing fine art and folklore items. Afterward, the city installed floodgates on the bridge to provide freedom from floods.

Roxie’s reliable report: The real Karlštejn Castle southwest of Prague protects the Czech’s royal treasures. 

Carefully examine the National Czech & Slovak Museum’s interactive exhibits. The museum’s mission is to explain the Slovak and Czech peoples. The museum is accessible and has portable folding chairs for those who need them.

Related: Visit Wilson, the Czech Capital of Kansas, home of the World’s Largest Czech Egg.

Roxie holding Roadie in a replica of a ship's steerage compartment with two sets of bunk beds in the National Czech and Slovak Museum.
Steerege costs less money than other compartments at the expense of privacy.

1. The National Czech and Slovak Museum explores American opportunity

The Czechs arrived in Cedar Rapids in 1853 and 1854. Now, Cedar Rapids has more people of Czech ancestry than anywhere else but Prague, the Czech capital. NCSML displays artifacts dealing with Czech and Slovak immigrants around the United States. All three nations had to fight for their freedom and work to preserve their cultures.

Seeking freedom from poverty

Those who immigrated in the 19th and early 20th centuries sought freedom from poverty. They desired a decent living or land ownership. Twentieth century immigrants fled political persecution. They had to abandon their homes, jobs, and loved ones while seeking human rights. The immigrants established churches and other organizations to ease into American life. Nearly 2 million Czechs and Slovaks currently live in the United States. 

Roadie sits in a small green suitcase in the National Czech and Slovak Museum, surrounded with potential objects to pack.
Which parts of your life would you choose to take?

Charles Heller’s family fled their homeland in 1948 when he was 12. His parents each carried a suitcase, and he held a bundle of blankets. He didn’t realize that the blankets hid jewelry. An empty suitcase invites visitors to choose their most precious or practical possessions.

Related: Follow American Gothic painter Grant Wood in Iowa, including his hometown of Cedar Rapids.

Please sign up for our newsletter.

Just to make things easy, we don't sell or share your information.

A crowd of colorfully clad mannequins at the National Czech and Slovak Museum.
Experience the colorful world of Kroje.

2. Exploring Czech life and Slovak life at the NCSML

The NCSML preserves posters, textiles, music, paintings, and film, the freedom to create. A crowd of mannequins wears kroje, folk costumes from the Slovak and Czech provinces. Experiment with fashion design using the museum’s paper dolls. Another display explains Moravian folk motifs. The motifs contain apples, snails, birds, and tulips, and rules specify their content, colors, and unique shapes. 

The Immigrant House kitchen with gadgets, a red-and-white-checked tablecloth, a pot-belied stove, and a Czech-labeled spice rack.
The Immigrant House kitchen is full of early labor-saving devices.

The Immigrant Home at the National Czech and Slovak Museum

The Sleger Immigrant Home housed five generations from the 1890s to 1984. They left Bohemia, a Czech province. The gray house with red trim shows domestic life at the turn of the last century. You’ll appreciate the hard work we’ve escaped because of modern conveniences.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum explains kolache varieties

It also explores food, like Americanized kolache styles. Texas makes savory kolaches with sausage and jalapeño peppers. Minnesota and the Dakotas’ kolaches enclose the filling. However, most bakeries produce an open kolache with visible filling. Some make cookie kolaches from buttery dough folded over filling instead.

Unfortunately, the display didn’t include fresh-baked samples.

Cutout of a man looking over his shoulder at a girl waving a flag.
Nazi and Communist tyranny caused people to wonder who was watching them.

3. Recalling freedom’s price at the National Czech and Slovak Museum

The National Czech and Slovak Museum honors its nations’ determined spirit because Czech and Slovak history includes many oppressors. The depressing list includes the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, and the Soviet-backed Communists. But stories of freedom intertwine with oppressive tales. Quotes line the “Faces of Freedom” walls, and citizens tell their oral histories. “You do not know what freedom means unless you lose it,” Zdenka Novak said. However, the exhibit asks, “What would you risk” for freedom? “We had to decide what we were fighting for, and what price we were willing to pay,” Ludek Sequens recalled.

A black-and-white line drawing turned cut-out portrays Maňa, the museum's tour guide.
Mana enters the Faces of Freedom exhibit to guide visitors onward.

A helpful tour guide

Maňa Marchovsky, a little girl who immigrated to Cedar Rapids with her family, is the museum’s tour guide through the tumultuous 20th century. The real Maňa emigrated to the United States with her family in 1922. Her gymnast father, František, performed for President Warren Harding at the White House. He was invited to lead the Sokol chapter in Cedar Rapids. The family intended to stay in Iowa for a few years and then return home. Instead, they remained in Iowa.

Standing bronze sculpture of Thomas Masaryk, first President of the 1918 Czechoslovak Republic
Thomas Masaryk was the first President of the 1918 Czechoslovak Republic.

Freedom in flux: The NMCSL explains a century of change

The Czechs and Slovaks endured bewildering change in the 20th century. In a single lifetime, Czechoslovakia gained independence, then endured Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. The nation regained independence after World War II, only to endure Communism. For seven months in 1968, Czechoslovakia experimented with “socialism with a human face.” Unfortunately, the Warsaw Pact crushed the Prague Spring in August 1968.

Czechoslovakia finally regained autonomy in 1989’s Velvet Revolution. Three years later, the Velvet Divorce produced the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

Silver goblets decorated with garnet cameos.
Johann Michael Funk created these exquisite chalices with Bohemia garnets, enamel, and silver between 1705-1716.

4. Celebrate Czech and Slovak culture with NMCSL special events

Powder your kolache and brew coffee every first Friday, when the museum holds Coffee and Kolach via YouTube and Facebook Live. Staff discusses a topic of interest. The Blue Ribbon Chapter of the American Needlepoint Guild ply their needles every third Wednesday, and the Cedar Valley Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild comes every fourth Thursday. The Skala Bartizal Library hosts the Czech’em Out Book Club each month.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Check the calendar for special events like cooking classes and guided tours.

White bust of Franz Joseph I with a substantial mustache and sideburns wearing his military uniform and riband. A garnet brooch with his initials sis on his chest.
Emperor Franz Joseph I was the second-to-last Austro-Hungarian ruler. He wears his initials in an 1891 gold brooch with rose-cut garnets.

Experience extraordinary exhibitions

When I visited, the museum exhibited Brilliant Bohemian Garnets. The exquisite works of art included every jewelry category and the artisans’ tools that created them. A gravel-filled container invited guests to dig for garnets, but I didn’t find a jewel.

5. Lifelong learning at the National Czech and Slovak Museum

The museum offers various educational options for all ages.

Outlined US map on a yellow wall showing names of cities with high Czech and Slovak populations. Cities include Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Milwaukee, Newark, Pittsburgh, and Omaha.
Cities with high Slovak and Czech populations.

NMCSL study tours

“Maňa: One Girl’s Story” reaches grade school students studying immigration. 

American families all have immigrant stories. “Immigration Then and Now” connects historic immigrant stories to current ones with “Faces of Freedom” and the Immigrant Home. Follow NCSML’s mascot, Hubert the Hedgehog, with a free interactive workbook.

Request guided tours of the museum’s temporary exhibits or design a custom tour. Possibilities include kroje, holiday traditions, food, the 2008 flood, and behind-the-scenes tours.

Photos of military parades below an anti-fascist and anti-Communist quote from the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Photos from the Prague Spring hang from a framework of metal pipes.
Commemorating those who resisted tyranny.

Older children and adults can reflect on past violence and work toward justice in “War, Genocide, and Revolution: Czechoslovakia in the 20th Century.” The tour explains the trauma and triumph of Slovak and Czech societies in the 20th century.

Study NMCSL curricula

The 66.77.89 Curriculum explores Czechoslovakia’s dissenters. The “68” references the Prague Spring, while “77” refers to Charter 77. Responding to psychedelic Czech rockers The Plastic People of the Universe‘s arrest. 241 people signed Charter 77. The Chartists intended to hold the government accountable to laws and treaties guaranteeing human rights. Those agreements included the Helsinki Accords, which the Czechoslovakian government had signed in 1975. Of course, “89” honors the fall of Communism in 1989. Havel, a Chartist, became the Czech President in 1989. 

Book the staff’s Speakers Bureau

Invite an NCSML staff member to speak at your organizations, clubs, churches, and schools.

Roadie sips beer from a tasting tulip glass.
Roadie approves of Crush Berry Beer from Lion Bridge Brewing Co.

Where to eat and stay

The Lions Bridge Brewing Co. in the Czech Village is a short walk from the museum. Its cozy ambiance is perfect for a relaxing meal. The brewery offers a beer for nearly every preference. However, guests must try the Crush Berry beer. Why? Because the local Quaker Oats factory produces Cap’n Crunch Crunch Berry cereal. Natives’ noses know when the sweet cereal is on the production line because the aroma wafts over Cedar Rapids.

Roxie’s reliable report: Quaker Oats and General Mills produce many cereals and other foods in Cedar Rapids.

I enjoyed the seasonal Oktobot 3000, a barrel-aged Imperial Märzen, and The Spice Must Flow! The black ale melds with maple and Saigon cinnamon. Start with the cheddar and potato pierogies with sour cream, onions, and herbs. Next, eat a jalapeño popper burger. It lacks the pepper but includes the dip slathered on a pretzel bun.

Roxie’s reliable report: English borrowed “robot” from Czech.

Afterward, cross the bridge into New Bohemia, a/k/a/ NewBo, for dessert at Almost Famous Popcorn. Pick up a pack of popcorn to accompany a delicious super premium hand-dipped ice cream cone. Got a sweet tooth? Mom’s Cinnamon Roll flavor is to die for. Bring the heat with Fire-Breathing Dragon. Cool your tongue afterward with a vintage soda.

Stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton (ad), and when you snuggle into bed, be grateful for your freedom.

National Czech and Slovak Museum Pinterest title
Pin this post.

Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)

Follow by Email