Wilder’s Doll Exhibit - Volunteers spend 2,000 hours on display

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Mary Wikert, Cedar Falls, chairs a group that invested 2,000 volunteer hours in the Wilder Museum doll exhibit.

Dolls are arranged in vignettes that include copies of historical photos from the time the dolls were manufactured.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


A few years ago when the economy was down and travel costs were up, the concept of “staycations” was launched to encourage close-to-home getaways. A side benefit of the concept was discovering or re-discovering “backyard gems.” 

Northeast Iowa has a great deal to offer in the way of one- and two-day explorations. Over the coming weeks, the Register will feature some of the sites and experiences that make a “staycation” in this area a memorable event. Our series will include a behind-the-scenes look at local attractions, beginning with a tremendous volunteer effort to improve a major exhibit at the Wilder Museum in Strawberry Point.

The collections at the museum include a multitude of military items, historical artifacts, Victorian furniture, wonderful 19th Century hanging and “Gone with the Wind” lamps, large exquisite porcelain figurines, dollhouses, and toys. The museum, which was extensively remodeled in 2014, also has one of the best exhibits of antique and vintage dolls in the Upper Midwest. That entire collection received a massive facelift over the late winter months.

The 20-member Prairie Rapids Doll Club of Iowa, which has been based around Cedar Falls and Waterloo since, took on restoration of the Wilder Museum doll collection as its special project. At one point approximately 800 dolls and accessories were removed from the numerous display cases and placed on tables for identification and preparation before being reinstalled into a new location. Chairperson Mary Wikert (Cedar Falls) developed a detailed catalog system based on medium, origin of manufacture, and style of dolls. The catalog codes corresponded with how the dolls would later be organized and exhibited.  

After the cataloging was complete, temporary tags were attached to the dolls. Doll club members then started the labor and time intensive process of identifying and describing each doll. All of this information was recorded on an inventory sheet that included the ID number, item description, mark, type of doll, and the material from which it was made.  The maker was also listed on the form along with the country of origin and time frame during which the doll was produced. Doll club members utilized numerous reference books to make accurate assessments.  Doll club member Steve Wikert (Cedar Falls) along with other doll club members wrote descriptive signage to differentiate and help identify specific types of dolls and groupings of dolls. The information was then typed, printed, and attractively mounted on display boards. Doll club member Bob McCabe (Waterloo) took on the lengthy task of information processing and data entry of the inventory for the Wilder Museum’s collection of dolls. 

Throughout the process members cleaned the dolls and freshened their outfits. There were some wonderful discoveries made throughout the process. Some very rare dolls were found in the collection. There were also wonderful original outfits hidden under the layers of clothing on some dolls that were dressed in 1960s-era outfits.  It seemed almost like an archeological expedition since many of the dolls had stood untouched in the museum or in storage for over 75 years.

The Wikerts donated poster-size enlargements of antique photos featuring children holding dolls. They positioned the posters as a backdrop to the many doll vignettes the club members created for the Wilder doll collection.  These poster-size photos enhance the exhibits greatly by giving a historical reference to the children who owned these types of toys.

The final process for the Prairie Rapids of Iowa Doll Club members was to arrange the dolls in an aesthetic way. A thematic approach was taken in organizing the exhibits to better educate the viewer. That part of the project took numerous full-day trips by many members over several months. In total it took an estimated 2,000 volunteer hours to refresh the collection.

The work of these dedicated volunteers can be viewed during museum hours all weekends in May, September, and October and 7 days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  

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