New Exhibit at Durham Museum Highlights Historic Omaha Women

Feb. 2, 2018, 6:45 a.m. ·

Artifacts to be used in new exhibit at the Durham Museum. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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A new exhibit that opens Saturday at the Durham Museum in Omaha shines a light on women who have done extraordinary things to help the city become what it is today. “Women in Omaha” includes some names you might not recognize, but that’s the whole point.

In a conference room scattered with artifacts at the Durham Museum, Dr. Elaine Nelson sees an idea that’s close to becoming reality. Nelson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

“Really the whole idea for me was what does the history of Omaha look like from various groups of women, from their experiences,” Nelson said.

Her idea was to take the stories of everyday women who have been the backbone of the city and turn them into an exhibit, with the help of her students.

Dr. Elaine Nelson, University of Nebraska Omaha Assistant Professor of History. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“My agenda with this is to really get my students to think about how they think about history. What do they consider as being historical? And for me, it’s the everyday stories that we never hear about,” she said. “Those, I think, are the most interesting parts of our history.”

Nelson went to local organizations to get ideas for women who should be included and then came up with a list of twelve. All but two, Rose Blumkin, who founded Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Sarah Josyln, who worked tirelessly on social causes, are still living and involved in the community.

There are names like Dr. Jacqueline St. John, a local pioneer for women’s rights, Ella Jean Rogers, a leader in the civil rights movement and Rita Melgares, an attorney who has fought for the rights of Latino families in Omaha for decades. Nelson says it’s easy to find information about high-profile women from Nebraska, but not women who aren’t so famous.

Buttons included in the Omaha Women exhibition. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“You’ll still get history of Kay Orr and Helen Boosalis and the very historical governor’s race between two women, it was the first time it happened in the country, but what are these very local stories that are happening on an everyday basis that we don’t really consider as being significant just because it hasn’t been printed or it hasn’t been researched,” Nelson said.

She had her students interview the living women on the list as part of their classwork and also collect artifacts that are part of the exhibit. They include clothing, personal effects, photos and other artwork and will be on display in the Velde Hall of American History at the Durham Museum.

Carrie Meyer is the museum’s director of curatorial and education services.

“These things that were a few weeks ago in people’s homes being used, will be in casework, behind glass and on mannequins, treated to a museum-level exhibition that tells their history,” Meyer said.

Carrie Meyer, director of curatorial and education services at Durham Museum. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Many of the women in the exhibit have done most of their work quietly and out of the spotlight.

“The names in this exhibition, outside of Sarah Joslyn and Rose Blumkin, most people are not going to even know who these women are and people might see themselves represented a little bit in there and say I can make a difference,” Meyer said. “I can impact my community just as these women did by living their lives by seeing a need and making sure that they address that need.”

As Dr. Elaine Nelson takes one more look at the artifacts for the exhibit, she says she’s glad people will be able to see the important history of women who have helped build Omaha.

“The past is really powerful and so I think that whatever stories they do take away, I hope it inspires them on some level to be engaged with both who they area in their past and who they can bring to their community in the future,” Meyer said.

Women in Omaha: A Biographical Sketch Through History continues through July 29 and is part of the museum’s Community Classroom program where students at local universities augment their in-class experience at the museum.