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Travel 2013: Dolls, barn make museum unique

5/5/2013

By ANNE HOUSTON

Special to The Hays Daily News

COLBY -- In Oasis on the Plains lies a Kansas gem nestled on 24 acres of land just north of Interstate 70. One of the Eight Wonders of Kansas Architecture, the Cooper Barn is a staggering 15,048 square feet and displays more than 100 years of agricultural history. Additionally, the site is home to a 1930s farmstead, a one-room schoolhouse (complete with playground), a sod home and the Lone Star Church (bell included).

But it is the Kuska Collection and the Cooper Barn itself that make the Prairie Museum of Art and History such a treasure.

"Nobody else has a collection like that," museum director Sue Taylor said.

The Prairie Museum of Art and History, celebrating its 25th anniversary, houses artifacts from Nellie McVey Kuska's collection -- as well as pieces donated by the community. Kuska collected from the time she was 7 years old until her death in 1973, leaving behind 30,000 treasures, which make up much of the museum's exhibits.

"The museum is totally unexpected. Visitors expect to find such places in larger cities, not in Colby, Kansas," said Christina Beringer, the museum's head of marketing and public relations.

Truly, pieces from the museum's collection range from the commonplace to the unique. Among the more than 1,000 dolls displayed is a doll that shares two creators -- Jumeau, who created the bisque face and arms, and Rochard, who designed the body with built-in Stanhope jewelry that produces images of paintings from the Louvre when illuminated. The doll is one of just five like it in existence. Just below the display window are gloves and a fan for little girls to adorn themselves with -- a chance to compete with the doll's elegance. Every section of the museum contains items with which children and adult visitors can interact.

Unlike many museums, the Prairie Museum takes away the traditional stuffy atmosphere. Though some exhibits are partitioned off, many others engage visitors with tactile objects. Children have the opportunity to put on their Sunday best, ring the church bell, go to school, iron clothes and clean the sod house -- all before snack time. Even adults are invited to jump on the rope-framed bed, though discretion is advised.

The Prairie Museum of Art and History contains a wealth of knowledge and experiences for all ages. Visitors can walk away feeling like an expert collector who knows the difference between cut glass and pressed glass. But more importantly, visitors connect with days gone by.

"First, I love history and have an appreciation for previous generations," said museum visitor Brad Fletcher.

Kuska collected out of her own love for history -- as well as her desire to preserve it -- taking the time to learn about each artifact. Kuska even hosted a local radio show called "The Hobby Lady" that discussed collectibles and how she acquired hers. A sample reading from her radio show, available at www.prairiemuseum.org, shares a memory that centers on friends, family and the complications of purchasing an antique clock in Canada. The clock became yet another keepsake in Kuska's vast collection.

No strangers pass through the doors of Prairie Museum.

"They feel like they're friends," museum staffer Opal Linville said of visitors.

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This summer, the museum will house a student art exhibit and host "A Night at the Museum" summer camp for youth who have completed the fourth grade and beyond. Campers take on the personas of characters they research throughout the week and present their characters on the Friday during camp. Adults also are invited to attend the camp to help with research or even to create their own characters -- namely to become involved. The camp is free and will be from June 10 to 14. For more information or to enroll, contact program director Ann Miner at (785) 460-4590 or email her at museumed@st-tel.net.

The Prairie Museum of Art and History is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 5 p.m. weekends. Adult admission is $8, seniors and group rates $6, and children are admitted for $2. Thomas County residents gain entry at a discount, and member admissions are free.