Engaging Community – Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum

Two generations explore the Muscatine map at the Pearl Button Museum

I spent the last three weeks traveling from Memphis up to Lake Itasca, the headwater of the Mississippi River, and then back down to Memphis on the Great River Road.  During the trip, we visited 15 or so full-fledged museums and a couple dozen nature preserves, historic landmarks, and so forth.  Among my favorite stops was the Muscatine Pearl Button Museum.  Muscatine is a small city of about 25,000 along the Mississippi River in East Central Iowa.  I held a certain fascination for visiting this place over the past couple of years.  Back then, I came across their website that contained the folkloric saying of “No Muscatine resident can enter Heaven without evidence of previous servitude in the button industry.”  Sounded to me like they had a great story to tell.

By the time of my visit a week ago, the museum moved to a new location, with a whole new set of exhibits, and was now part of the Muscatine History and Industry Center.  Here is why the Center and Museum rank among the favorites from our recent trip:

  • Primarily composed of exhibit panels and hands-on displays, the Pearl Button Museum tells the story of the town from the origins of the industry in the late 1800s through the transition to plastic buttons by the 1980s.  I took away an intimate sense of the city’s history.  Rather unique was the seemingly non-biased telling of the pearl button story from the perspectives of the entrepreneurs who owned the factories, the clammers who collected the mussels from the Mississippi River, the 1946 Pearl Button Queen selected by Ronald Reagan, to the workers of the industry. One exhibit panel focuses on Pearl McGill, a young union activist.  The AFL unions are given the same balanced presentation as the owners of the factories.  In this capacity the Museum truly incorporates the multiple constituencies of Muscatine.
  • The hands-on exhibits engage with the Museum story.  That is, the hands-on approach is not simply for the sake of having a hands-on experience as is often the case in museums.  The Muscatine exhibits challenge visitors to “card” buttons or sort and count buttons as workers did for over a half century.  A large map (pictured above) of Muscatine plots the locations of the button factories and support industries along with private residences.  Accompanying legend books give detail on structures.  During my short visit to the museum, multiple sets of visitors spent time viewing the map.  In one instance, two older women reminisced about their neighborhood in the 1950s.  In another instance, a grandmother told her grandson about her own history in the town, the school she attended, and her parents first home, pointing out the locations on the map and correlating them to present day structures.   The Pearl Button Museum is a resource for out-of-town visitors and community residents that is very engaging.
  • The Pearl Button Museum occupies the first floor of the Muscatine History and Industry Center.  The second floor of the Center exhibits the modern industries of Muscatine.  These exhibits come off as equal parts trade show, chamber of commerce, and educational.  The collaborative arrangement provides corporate support for the total Center complex.
  • With the updated exhibits installed beginning in 2006, the Center is able to function as a venue for cultural events in downtown Muscatine.  As well, the Museum currently offers K-12 educational programs.

Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum is a small venue off the main route of many vacationers but the location on the Great River Road is certainly an asset.  Importantly, the Center clearly functions as an outstanding example of a local community resource.

What is your experience with other small museum venues that serve as community resources?

  5 comments for “Engaging Community – Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum

  1. Chris Steinbach
    August 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    I am the editor of the Muscatine Journal. I’d be interested in publishing this as a guest column, if that’s OK with you. If it is, would you please send to me by e-mail a jpeg file/photo of yourself that I could use with the column?


  2. August 19, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I read this article in the Muscatine Journal. Thanks for visiting our city, and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the experience.

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