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New permanent exhibit unpacks Mennonite immigrant furniture tradition

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The newest permanent exhibit at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum has been in the making for more than 15 years.

“Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” opens to the public on Saturday, Sept. 23. Based on the museum’s 1991 temporary exhibit of the same name, the new permanent collection contains pieces either brought by immigrant Mennonites in the 1870s or built by their first-generation descendents. It will be installed in a new gallery in the museum.

The collection is an official project of Save America’s Treasures, a partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic and National Preservation. Since its creation in 1998, Save America’s Treasures has identified historic places, artifacts and documents in need of immediate preservation. “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” is one of only seven designated Save America’s Treasures projects in Kansas.

“Mennonite Immigrant Furniture” features pieces either brought by immigrant Mennonites in the 1870s and 1880s or built by their first-generation descendents. The exhibit unpacks the history of a distinct Mennonite furniture tradition from its origins in northern Poland’s Vistula Delta region to its migration into south Russia and finally to the Great Plains of North America. This Old World tradition disappeared as Mennonites adopted American styles of furniture in the early twentieth century.

The exhibit showcases 29 surviving handcrafted pieces, including dowry chests, clocks, cradles and wardrobes ranging from pre-1790 to 1910. Many pieces are large and sturdy, constructed of ash or pine. The builders added decorative touches using inlaid veneer, false-grain painting or satin. For a more personal touch, they often marked the largest pieces with dates and names or initials of owner or maker.

Establishment of this new permanent exhibit has been made possible in part by the Kauffman Museum Association; the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that fosters innovation, leadership and lifetime learning; the Herbert Funk Family; and the Kansas Humanities Council, which promotes understanding of the history, traditions and ideas that shape our lives and communities.

Kauffman Museum is located on the Bethel College campus at 27th and Main in North Newton. Museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the museum and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” which also includes admission to the other permanent exhibits “Of Land and People” and “Mirror of the Martyrs,” is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 6-16. More information is available by calling the museum at 316-283-1612 or visiting its Web site, kauffman.bethelks.edu.

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