Community Engagement at the Muscatine History and Industry Center

Nearly two years ago I visited the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa for the first time.  After that visit I posted about the Museum’s strong focus on community engagement.  A few weeks ago I had a return visit and was able to interview Mary Wildermuth, the Director of the Museum and Terry Eagle, Assistant Director of the Museum.  Below are their comments:

Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to work at the Pearl Button Museum.

Mary Wildermuth, the Executive Director is a retired School Administrator with a background in Library Science and is a grant writer.  Her skills were of interest to the Board of Directors when a vacancy occurred last year.  Terry Eagle, the Assistant Director is also retired from the Muscatine Fire Department.  He is a Muscatine native and loves history and people.  He is a natural at giving tours and engaging the public.  We complement each other very well in regard to our backgrounds, interests and knowledge of the community.  We are also both retired and have time to make this Center the very best one!!

What was the role of the local Muscatine community in the creation of the Pearl Button Museum?

As with all things, there were a few key leaders who realized that current residents should remember their heritage.  Those key leaders were able to sell the idea to the community and rally major support to fund the beautiful button story exhibit.  Then they engaged the homegrown industries to set up their own exhibits on the second floor.  Thus telling the entire Muscatine Story based on the button industry and current industries.  Making one complete story!!

How did the arrangement come about for the Muscatine History and Industry Center that features the Pearl Button Museum and exhibits of present day manufacturers in Muscatine?

Those major partners were encouraged to secure space on the second floor to tell their stories and to provide ongoing support monetarily to the Center.

The Pearl Button Museum seems to receive strong support from the Muscatine community.  What do you believe accounts for this success?

Everyone in our community is in some way connected to the button industry and those family memories anchor their support.  Secondly, everyone has probably worked for the industries located on the second floor of this Center.  The Muscatine History and Industry Center is really Muscatine’s Story!!

How can area residents of Muscatine participate in the Museum?

Area residents can volunteer here as front desk people, provide tours, make membership contributions and participate in programs, as well as, just enjoy the Center.

Many museums in the United States today are struggling with decreased attendance.  The Pearl Button Museum seems to be doing quite well.  Why do you think this is so?

We have three main audiences:  tourists, those that travel the Mississippi River, children from school classes and business partners who are interested in learning about the companies showcased here.  We try to make the experience personal and show our appreciation for those attending.  We hope everyone will spread the word to all their friends and family through the experience they have here.

The Pearl Button Museum explores the button industry from perspectives ranging from the clammers who harvest the shells to the owners of the industry.  Equal weight is given to all of these perspectives in the museum exhibits.  Was this intentional?  Do you believe being inclusive of all of those involved in the button industry is a key to your success?

I don’t know how you could tell the button industry story without including everyone who worked in the industry.  And this Center is about our community and the vibrancy of the workplaces here and how they have provided employment for many many people.

What are your plans for the Museum?

We are planning on updating our exhibits to make them more technologically savvy and automated.  We are planning a Memory Wall to celebrate the memorabilia that people bring to us – and we are unearthing great treasures.

Do you have any suggestions for other individuals interested in creating more community support for their museum?

Get the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism folks in your town to promote your successes to get folks here.  Talk about the town and the people who made it.

 You can contact Mary or Terry at the Muscatine History and Industry Center at or 563-263-1052.  
You can also read Jeffrey Copeland’s recent book Shell Games a historical novel based on the life of Pearl McGill, an industrial spy turned union activist in Muscatine’s button industry.

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