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New museum exhibit explores Mennonite life, death, honor

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Kauffman Museum at Bethel College is highlighting Mennonite heritage with the special exhibition “What’s Old is New: Recent Acquisitions to Our Mennonite Collections,” open now through May 18.

“What’s Old is New” features Mennonite furniture, bonnets that contrast the “plain” dress of Swiss German Mennonites with the “fancy” dress of South Russian immigrants, and artifacts from Mennonite congregations in the central Great Plains.

“One of my favorite artifacts is the wooden burial map for the Catlin Mennonite Cemetery near Peabody,” said Jocelyn Wilkinson, museum intern and a senior history major at Bethel.

“So many of the other artifacts are about the lives people lived – whether told through their travel trunk, wardrobe, or rocking chair – but this tells of their death. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.”

Two wardrobes from Mennonite families are evidence of daily life and the immigration experience. Kauffman Museum borrowed both for a special exhibition in 1990. In the last two years, both became part of the museum’s permanent collection of Mennonite immigrant furniture.

The Funk wardrobe shows the construction and painted wood graining associated with the Vistula Delta style. Made in 1887, the wardrobe was owned by Gerhard Funk, who lived in the Bruderthal community near Hillsboro.

Ethel Ewert Abrahams of North Newton donated the Funk wardrobe to Kauffman Museum, along with examples of German “fraktur” writing that are also on display in the exhibition.

The other wardrobe is a massive inlaid piece that Aron E. Claassen built in 1869 as a wedding present for his half-brother, Johann Claassen.

The wardrobe is constructed of 21 pieces that can be disassembled for easier transport, a feature that allowed the wardrobe to be moved from West Prussia to Beatrice, Neb., when the family immigrated.

Descendants of the Paul G. and Ruby M. Claassen family donated the wardrobe and heirlooms, including the family Bible, handmade bedding and children’s clothing, to Kauffman Museum.

In addition to artifacts of daily life, “What’s Old is New” features an object that honors the life of Menno Simons, a Dutch leader whose influence led to some Anabaptists being called Mennonites.

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of Menno Simons’ death, the Hamburg-Altona Mennonite congregation in Germany commissioned Johannes von Langa to create a medal. Cast in either bronze or silver in 1909, the medal features the image of Simons on the front, while the reverse shows the Hamburg-Altona church seal – two palm trees divided by a body of water and the all-seeing eye of God.

Another even more rare artifact is one of the original plates used to print illustrations in the 1685 edition of the “Martyrs’ Mirror.” The book tells of the lives and sacrifices of Christians from the biblical account of the stoning of Stephen to martyrs of the 16th-century Reformation in Europe.

The plate recently emerged in Germany and was purchased from an antiquarian dealer by the Martyrs’ Mirror Trust, comprised of Kauffman Museum and the Mennonite Historical Library in Goshen, Ind.

“What’s Old Is New” features nearly 100 new acquisitions and shows the variety of artifacts being collected by Kauffman Museum, including thanks gifts from World War II refugees to MCC volunteers, and a peace flag from Bethel prankster Herman Bubbert. The special exhibition will be on display through May 18.

Regular Kauffman 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 Mondays as well as Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admission to the special exhibit, along with the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit its website,, or Facebook page.

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