By Nicholas Hartmann, Ph.D., Director of Learning and Civic Engagement

The NCSML’s director of learning and civic engagement guides program developments based on understandings and curiosities he developed early in life. Learn about his perspectives and how they affect the NCSML’s programs.

 When I was in sixth grade, I saw a picture of the Velvet Revolution in my social studies textbook. I became really intrigued with the stories of the fall of the Iron Curtain, whether in Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere. At the same time, I had a strong interest in traditional culture and local heritage, as my grandfather was the county historian, and I lived about 12 miles from the historic communal settlement of New Harmony in southern Indiana. That led to studying folklore and anthropology in college, and eventually graduate degrees in folklore.

In college, I was growing tired of my Spanish language classes, and decided to try something new. I impulsively took five semesters of Estonian, as I figured that it was an opportunity I would seldom have again. That led to an exchange semester at the University of Tartu in Estonia, where I not only dedicated a lot of time to studying Nordic/East European folk culture, but also rekindled an interest in late-20th century Communist/post-Communist history and arts. In Estonia, my two interests wove together in a way that would greatly shape the work I do now at the NCSML.

From these two experiences, I learned about how the little things in life—the folk culture of place—is a reflection of bigger events in history. Individual stories are as important as the big ones, and protest posters are as powerful a symbol as large tanks painted pink. Balancing the small things, with the big events, is one of the many ways in which we engage learners at the NCSML.

My experiences, both local and global, provided me with a lot of background for helping learners who are seeking the answers to their questions (and who might also question some of the answers). Local history is ultimately a part of global history (and vice-versa), so in our learning initiatives, we focus heavily on giving students a look into both.

During the Maňa: One Girl’s Story tour, as well as our secondary school tours, this is very evident. Students coming through our Faces of Freedom permanent exhibit learn about how Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk was the first president of independent Czechoslovakia, but they also find out about how he was connected to Cedar Rapids, as well as the Midwest on the whole. Second-graders learning about immigration witness ideas from the days of Czech neighborhoods in Cedar Rapids, while also getting a stronger idea of where, in fact, Czechia and Slovakia are on the map, and how our artifacts tell stories from those countries.

Ultimately, the learners we serve will have a better idea of what came before them, and where they are in the greater world. Through my background in Eastern European history and traditional culture, I’ve been able to help students gain a knowledge of what some call the “glocal”—local adaptations of global ideas.

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