So much has changed in the Quad Cities since the Putnam Museum & Science Center opened its “River, Prairie, and People” exhibit in the early 1980s.
The museum — at 1717 W. 12th St., Davenport — is raising money to match a new federal grant of $245,000 to complete a major overhaul of the regional history exhibit, including partnering with several community organizations.
The grant (the only one in the state of Iowa) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services was made possible through the support of local funders, including the Regional Development Authority, United Way of the Quad Cities, Exelon Corporation and the Jim Estes estate. The $245,000 grant requires a 1-to-1 local match, and the entire Regional History Update is expected to cost over $700,000, according to the Putnam.
“This is a period of reflection for the Putnam,” Kerry Smith, vice chair of the Putnam Board of Trustees, said at a Tuesday morning press conference. “The exhibit served as an index of sorts for our historic collection at the time – how things have changed since then.”
It’s vital the Putnam update its exhibit to reflect the area’s history across all audiences, to better reflect the modern era, our shared experiences and rich diversity of the area, he said.
“The organization invested in me as a youth, and I’m so fortunate to return the investment in the role I have today,” Smith said. “This is an exciting time for us, in our 154-year history impacting lives – especially children – in this community.
The Putnam exists to ignite human potential and inspire our diverse community to learn about and care for the world and all its people, president/CEO Rachael Mullins said.
“After over 150 years of service to our community, we continue to grow and change to meet the needs of our community – just as the history and our shared experiences continue to progress,” she said.
In 2018, the museum hosted the traveling exhibit, “Race: Are We So Different?”, about the similarities among different populations of the human race. The Putnam built collaborations and partnerships at that time, including with exhibit creator The Science Museum of Minnesota.
They will be primary partner in the Regional History Update, working with the community to distill the themes of the “Race” exhibit through the lens of local history, so participants can learn about, build pride in, and embrace the collective identity of our diverse community.
Many community partners join together
Project partners in this work include Azubuike African American Council for the Arts, Friends of MLK, Inc., LULAC Council 10, the Iowa Women’s Archive of the University of Iowa Libraries, and World Relief Quad Cities. They’re reaching out across the community to gather stories, including an exhibit preview for feedback and upcoming sessions at local public libraries to collect oral histories and to ensure the exhibit is rich and relevant through community input and co-curation.
Community partners will work with Putnam curator of history and anthropology Chris Kastell and her team to co-create a Regional History Update to ensure greater representation and inclusion of the diverse QC community and our modern-day experience.
The exhibit will culminate in a reflection area to engage visitors in dialogue and guided activities. The project also includes an aligned school curriculum and programming to facilitate broad access and expand impact across the QC area through deep community collaboration.
Through the challenges of the past 18 months, the Putnam has nurtured “a unique power that we believe can unite us – our shared identity as Quad Citizens,” Mullins said.
The effort aligns with the Q2030 strategic plan and the new “QC, That’s Where” brand campaign, to show what makes the Quad Cities unique and special, she said.
“We want to make sure the entire community is celebrated and included in that work,” Mullins said.
“As a major family destination and through rich relationships among area school districts, the Putnam will welcome nearly every child across our region through this exhibit at some point in their childhood,” she said. “That is a blessing and a responsibility for the Putnam. We must assure each child and every citizen sees themselves in the history, current fabric, and the future of the Quad Cities community.”
Reactions from partners
A number of the Putnam partners spoke at the museum Tuesday, including Jan Masamoto, Putnam trustee and chair of the collections committee.
Last year, the Putnam received many stories and artifacts that are on display in the temporary Reflection Room, off the “River, Prairie and People” exhibit, which include items that will go on permanent exhibit when the project is completed by February 2023.
“By working with local partners and citizens to identify and source these stories, we will include relevant and diverse perspectives of our shared experience as a community,” Masamoto said.
“We are so proud of this work and proud of our region to be represented at the national level, to showcase the collaboration and heart of our beautiful community,” she said.
United Way’s United for Equity funding is providing many programmatic elements for the new effort, including for partners LULAC Council 10 in Davenport, Azubuike African American Council for the Arts, and the Friends of MLK Interpretive Center in Davenport.
“We thought this was a very important project for Azubuike to take part in,” said Azubuike president Gaye Burnett. “In the Quad Cities, we feel as African-Americans, that a lot of our history has been neglected and ignored.”
“So for Rachael to come directly to us and ask us to be part of this from the beginning, so we can help craft the narrative and get the stories we felt were important to be documented and stored for prosperity – this was an opportunity that we really could not turn down.”
Azubuike also has run an independent film program for the past seven years, which is helping shoot videos for the exhibit, Burnett said. “We really do appreciate this opportunity the Putnam has given us, and the respect they have shown us by coming to our community and actually asking our opinion, to be involved, and to put in what we feel is going to be important.”
“It has opened us up to new connections, new partnerships, new possibilities, and I think it’s a good way of bringing the community together,” she said.
Mike Guster, chief operating officer of Friends of MLK, Inc., said their group works to understand our collective history. “We are delighted to have been working with the Putnam and partner organization Azubuike, to identify Black voices that will capture a lot of this collective history,” he said.
“We are excited to get these stories told,” Guster said. Friends of MLK is working on a curriculum on QC African-American history to distribute to area schools.
Mike Reyes, Putnam trustee and administrator of LULAC Council 10, praised the Putnam for its past “Mi Casa Nueva” exhibit, which instilled pride in the local Latino community.
“With that, we started collecting artifacts, we started donating,” he said. “We’re still doing that, getting ready for the big museum exhibit.” LULAC also is gathering teacher resources for Davenport schools on Latino history, Reyes noted.
“We’re very excited about that,” he said. “All in all, the history of the Latinos and their impact on the Quad Cities is all being realized, and we’re very proud of that.”
“This work is about uniting our regional history – to give context, shared collective identity and assure that the next generation understands that the Quad Cities is one community,” Mullins said.
Monica Smith, Putnam trustee, secretary of Q2030 and Augustana College’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said: “Museums continue to be a place where we explore history, while continuing to engage in contemporary issues.
“While the role of museums has expanded, museums continue to be recognized as our nation’s most trusted institutions for information,” she said. “We’re proud of the work underway at the Putnam to assure that our regional history exhibit is reflective of our modern era – and truly represents all of the people of our region.”
The new exhibit will help the QC build a better, more equitable future “that recognizes all our stories, all of our skills and all of our talents,” Smith said.
The Putnam is partnering with the Friends of MLK center, at 501 Brady St., to have exhibits in their kiosks, and also place other kiosks throughout the community, Mullins said.
In the new Reflection Room (which features a stunning view of the hillside and Mississippi River below), visitors are invited to see some of the new items collected and offer their ideas about what’s important and special about the QC area. There are several brief biographies about important local people and movements through history, and more modern artifacts include:
- A collection of COVID-19 related items, including vials, vaccines and toilet paper. It remembers former Putnam Museum Guild member Mary Ann Otte, who was the first confirmed COVID death in Scott County, on April 3, 2020.
- A small cross-section of the old I-74 bridge (1935-2021), set against a photo of the new arched bridge that connects Moline and Bettendorf.
- A Black Lives Matter display, which includes a protest sign made by Samantha Weidner, used in Monmouth, Ill., on June 3, 2020. That exhibit briefly describes the BLM movement in 2020, and noted May 31-June 1, 2020 in the QC, there was social unrest and violence locally that left two people dead and two injured.
Public input sought and other goals
The Putnam invites the community for suggestions on how to improve the regional exhibit, and stories and images can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. There will be public forums held on the following dates:
- Nov. 19, noon to 4 p.m.: Davenport Public Library Fairmount Branch, 3000 N. Fairmount St.
- Nov. 22, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Rock Island Public Library, 401 19th St.
- Nov. 30, noon to 4 p.m.: Moline Public Library, 3210 41st St.
- Dec. 7, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.: Bettendorf Public Library, 2960 Learning Campus Drive.
“This our history; this is the story of us, and we want the entire community engaged in it,” Mullins said.
On Tuesday, the Putnam also introduced several updates that already have been made to the exhibit, including showcasing an April 28, 1965 speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Hotel Blackhawk (accepting the Pacem in Terris award), and the Native American leader Black Hawk’s description of Saukenuk.
Over multiple years and phases, the update will include:
- Bringing “River, Prairie and People” to the current day, including the extraordinary accomplishments and challenges of our times, with important stories, milestones, and iconic images and artifacts of our modern era. Through oral histories, digital submissions, and artifacts donated by members of our community, future generations can endeavor to understand this turbulent period.
- Collaborating with the Science Museum of Minnesota and other partners from the “Race” to infuse stories that are missing from the exhibit, including those that reflect the diversity of our region throughout history.
- Updating the Friends of MLK Interpretive Center and a series of satellite exhibit kiosks across the region to tell stories of our shared experiences as a community.
- Expanding oral histories and digitizing historic films with partners such as the Azubuike African American Council for the Arts and Fourth Wall Films, to create video vignettes and integrate multimedia storytelling and engage visitors in telling their stories.
- Developing youth activities and lesson plans in partnership with LULAC, Friends of Martin Luther King Interpretive Center, and others will align with the exhibit update and broaden the reach and impact of the collaboration, helping youth see themselves as members of the community who can make a positive difference and shape its future.