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Museum signs cooperation agreement for new Mennonite exhibit in Uzbekistan

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A retracing of the “Great Trek” into Central Asia by Mennonites in the late 19th century continues to yield fruit – currently the formation of a new Mennonite museum exhibit in Khiva, Uzbekistan, in cooperation with Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum.

Kauffman Museum has announced an agreement, signed Nov. 9, with Ichan Kala Museum of Khiva for a project that will portray the life and contributions of Mennonites who lived at Ak Metchet, nine miles from Khiva, from 1884-1935.

The exhibit will be located in four rooms on the second floor of the Ichan Kala Museum, which is housed in a former school for teaching Russian. Mennonite craftsmen from Ak Metchet built the school’s doors and windows in 1910. The first floor of the museum has a display of the work of Xudoybergan Divanov, famed as a pioneer in Uzbek photography and cinematography. Divanov received his first camera and instruction in photography from Wilhelm Penner, a teacher and pastor at Ak Metchet.

The invitation to Kauffman Museum to embark on the cooperative project came from Azat Karimov, the “Chief Keeper of the Funds” for the Ichan Kala Museum. In the 1970s, the Ichan Kala Museum collected some Mennonite artifacts for a section about Ak Metchet in a larger exhibit on the history of the Khiva region. Those artifacts, now in storage, will be the core of the new exhibit.

The Mennonites who lived at Ak Metchet from 1884 to 1935 were part of the 1880 “Great Trek” to Central Asia. They had fled from Russia to avoid military conscription, to find land on a new frontier and to seek a place of refuge in the expected “end times.”

“People in Khiva today remember the Ak Metchet Mennonites not for their theology but for their success in agriculture and their expertise as wood craftsmen,” said James Juhnke, Bethel College professor emeritus of history. “The Mennonites brought modern changes to Khiva. They had remarkably good relationships with the Muslim khans who ruled Khiva until 1920.”

Last spring, Juhnke and Bethel College assistant professor of business and economics Sharon Eicher led a Mennonite history tour to Uzbekistan. Juhnke, along with Robert Kreider, professor emeritus of peace studies, returned to Khiva Nov. 6-11 to make arrangements for the international museum exchange. They delivered a folder of photographs about the Ak Metchet settlement from the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College.

The new museum exhibit will include Mennonite-made tools, household items, clothing and a model replica of the settlement. Maps of the Great Trek route and of the Khiva region (Khoresm) will give geographical context.

Also in the exhibit will be a recently discovered detailed census and inventory of the Mennonite settlement that was conducted by the Soviet security police in 1934. Planned for the future is a public marker at the actual site of the Mennonite village.

Rachel Pannabecker, director of Kauffman Museum, welcomed the agreement with Ichan Kala Museum. “Kauffman Museum is pleased to serve as a bridge for this North America-Central Asia partnership that will illuminate a unique story from the Mennonite diaspora,” she said.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Kauffman Museum is located on the Bethel campus at 27th and Main in North Newton. See the Bethel College website,, the museum website.

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