Perspectives on the Past: Muscatine Art Center Features National Endowment for the Humanities Exhibit for the First Time
by Margaret Hurlbert
November 25, 2019

As the Director of the Muscatine Art Center (MAC) Melanie Alexander puts a lot of time and effort into selecting quality exhibitions to host. This year, for the first time, the MAC brought a National Endowment for the Humanities Exhibition to Muscatine, with assistance from the Mid-America Arts Alliance. A striking combination of history and social commentary, the exhibit “Jacob A. Riss: How the Other Half Lives,” provides a national look at many historical trends that influenced Muscatine’s past.

Alexander describes “Jacob A. Riss: How the Other Half Lives,” as an immersive look at how marginalized people lived in the 1900s. Through a selection of Riss’s famous photographs, artifacts from the time period, projections, audio recordings, and interactive materials, “Jacob A. Riss: How the Other Half Lives,” helps people immerse themselves in the lives of impoverished people in New York at the turn of the twentieth century. “There are things to do in the exhibit. It’s not just a flat exhibit,” emphasized Alexander.

Though the people pictured in the photos lived far away from Muscatine, the themes they illustrate, such as the treatment of immigrants and the experiences of children, have echoes in Muscatine’s own past. As Alexander explained it, “this exhibition is also on at the same time as our Oscar Grossheim exhibit. . .. What’s important is Jacob Riss was an advocate for social change, and the Grossheim photos shows how things were changing.”

Melanie Alexander pointing out an unusual picture in “Perspectives on Childhood: Photographs by Oscar Grossheim, 1900-1925.”

In “Perspectives on Childhood: Photographs by Oscar Grossheim, 1900-1925,” photos of children from all social classes in Muscatine illustrate their lives and show how their experiences changed over time. “We have a great range of photographs,” detailed Alexander. “[They show] a lot of kids growing up, not just middle class and wealthy children whose parents could afford studio sessions, but people outside in groups, people struggling, and students at school with their class . . . and at work.” By showing children of all classes in many changing roles, “Perspectives on Childhood: Photographs by Oscar Grossheim, 1900-1925,” shows how some of the social changes inspired by reformers like Riss affected the lives of people living and growing up in Muscatine.

A collection of local artifacts included in “Perspectives on Childhood: Photographs by Oscar Grossheim, 1900-1925.”

The MAC’s two current exhibits provide a pair of experiences that allow Muscatine residents to peek into the past like never before. Alexander encourages everyone to come discover both, as they have a lot to offer. “I think that especially the Oscar Grossheim show will appeal to people of all ages. . .. It’s a nice look at our community’s history, and there are some stunning and interesting photos in it,” she asserted. “With Jacob Riss, it’s a good reminder of our country’s history and the struggles that working class and especially immigrant families faced at that time, she added.”

The Riss exhibit also promises to usher in more National Endowment for the Humanities exhibits that will tie national topics to Muscatine’s past and present. “This is our first National Endowment for the Humanities exhibit, but it won’t be the last. We already have another one lined up,” Alexander proudly announced.

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