Monday, March 30, 2015

Villisca Axe Murders

On our drive out to Omaha, I happened to notice a sign for the small Iowa town of Villisca which for older history inclined Iowans brings back images of axe murders. I remember reading about the famous unsolved axe murders in a Iowa history book that I had in 5th grade and from which are teacher Mrs. Bradfield made us copy down huge portions into a notebook as assignments. I'm not sure if it was meant to improve our handwriting or a learning tool to make us remember the subject matter but if it was the latter, it worked.

While in Omaha, I looked it up online and saw that the house was still standing and there was a museum there. Not expecting much from the museum, I thought it would be neat just to stop and view the house to possibly spark conversation in our car on the remainder of our journey home. We pulled into Villisca and found the house without problem and saw that it and the museum were closed for the season. It is probably just as well because the museum didn't appear to have much of anything in it except for some lawn care items and the house turns out to have a virtual tour online in which you can visit it from the leisure of your home.

As for the murder, an unknown person sneaked into the house on June 9, 1912 after grabbing an axe out near the woodpile and killed prominent businessman Josiah B. Moore, his wife, four children and two visiting girls as they slept. There was a whole list of people suspected of the crime, several that were tried but nobody was ever convicted and the crime remains unsolved to this day. For historically inclined Iowans, the house is distinctive much like the one Grant Wood used in his painting 'American Gothic' and very recognizable.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Museum Lite

While researching places to visit in Omaha, I kept trying to find out information on the Durham museum. It was listed as being a partner with the Smithsonian and received traveling exhibits of their artifacts but not much else was talked about it. Figuring it was probably a historical museum from what little was said about it on its own website, we decided to give it a try. It is housed in an old grand central train station and the main hall is rather spectacular to look at. But once you go down a floor to the exhibit halls, everything changes.

For some reasons, museums across the country have been desperately trying to attract younger audiences to supplement the older generations who visit. They have been ripping out displays and putting in interactive displays for kids. It seems to me judging from my children's experience and mine, that they are effectively ruining the experience for everyone. Despite the interactive displays, the kids don't have enough to keep them engaged and the displays are so terribly dumbed down, that the adults have the same problem. Durham Museum, like so many others, has fallen victim to this phenomenon.

Half the museum contained some stripped down train cars geared towards kids running around and playing on them. It keeps them engaged for all of about ten minutes before they are bored. The rest of the museum has a half dozen rooms of disjointed displays of random objects loosely themed and appropriately placarded as to why we should care about them. They had a medical exhibit which due to my wife's profession, attracted us to the museum until we discovered that the entire display was a half dozen letters about medical related stuff hung in the corner of one room and a glass display box with a couple dozen medical instruments. Hardly the promised exhibit to take us back to the days of blood letting and magical cures that their website touted.

Also on our list of museums to see was the official Lewis and Clarke visitor's center which is located in Omaha. We walked into a massive four or five story building with great anticipation only to find out that the 40 feet of hallway we walked through to get to the information desk, a third of it formed into a gift shop, was essentially it. The rest of the building was just office space for the Department of Natural Resources. A small room off to one side had been converted into a movie theater so you could watch a heavily edited 20 minutes of the original 240 minute documentary film by Ken Burns entitled Lewis and Clarke: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery which I had seen many years ago. Again, most of the displayed items were geared towards children to play with, put on or touch.

Where are the days when you could see displayed focused on enlightening us on a particular aspect of our world? I can still find plenty of books that do this just fine but museums no longer count as a source of information in my opinion. Instead, they are nothing more than daycare centers for bored children. It truly is a shame.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bridge Over River Missouri

Killing time waiting for a museum to open, we drove down to the waterfront and decided to check out the Bob Kerry pedestrian bridge of the Missouri River. The rest of my family being poorly dressed for the weather, made it about a third of the way over the bridge but while they waited in the car, I walked over to Iowa and back. For those who don't know, Bob Kerry was a former Nebraska Governor, U.S. Senator and former Democratic Presidential nominee. If I was someone of his stature, I would be honored to have such a beautiful pedestrian bridge over a river linking two states and hundreds of miles of trails.

Being a pedestrian bridge between two states, probably something of a rarity, it was duly annotated to let you know when you were leaving one state for another. It was a fairly windy day and standing out in the middle, you could really feel the bridge moving which as an engineer, made me think of the Tacoma Narrows bridge. Fortunately for me, on this day it had a much better outcome.

The river here was making a great bend and Iowa fell on the inside of the bend so there were lots of sand bars and scrub trees. There have been time lapse photography technology for many years that allow you to see changing scenery in a particular location over time. There has also been time capsule technology for hundreds of years to give one a sense of what was happening in the past over longer periods of time. Perhaps someday they will come up with the technology to merge both into the best of two worlds, time lapse photography over centuries. I would love to see a river channel like this changing over that period of time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

How Great Thou Art

When vacationing with the kids, we try to alternate a stop for them with a stop for us. The first stop for us was the Joslyn Art Museum. I am the first to admit that I don't have an eye for art. Most of the classic works from bygone eras bore me and I wouldn't pay much money to have displayed on my walls. Modern art gets the juices flowing a bit more but often I find myself pondering how much money people are willing to throw away for a painting of splattered paint like the one above done by Jackson Pollock. I like the painting and I would hang it on a wall in my house but I would rather do it myself than shell out however much money people thing the painting above is worth.

After walking around this museum for over an hour, I sat down on a bench to rest my legs and those of the eight year old who was tagging along with me asking non-stop questions. For the first time during our visit, I happened to actually 'see' the floor. I was immediately pulled into its simplicity and beauty. They had sliced a 4 by 4 inch piece of lumber into half inch slices and created the world's largest end grain butcher block floor. It was quite stunning. It got me to thinking that perhaps I should shy away from the conventional when it comes to reflooring our house, a project that is getting nearer to the top of my master list.

Below is a tiny portion of a huge art display of colored blown glass anchored into a curling wave nearly 40 feet tall in the atrium. Much of it was in shadows but if I zoomed in on the top most part still partially in the sun, I could get a pleasing to my eye photo. It is an great example of modern art that I don't think I could do and one that I would probably find well worth the price they paid for it.

Finally, alongside an art display of a particular artists work was a large map showing some of the areas that the artist traveled too. Me being a lover of maps, found myself drawn to the map and couldn't help but take a picture of my native state. When I get our home office remodeled, I have great designs to obtain various maps that I can frame and hang from its walls. Since I can spend hours just perusing maps like some might do a magazine, my wife might not buy into the project but if I tell her that will be my man cave, perhaps I can sneak it by.

Friday, March 20, 2015


Having two young kids necessitates that our vacations include something for them as well as for us adults which has limited our vacations to urban centers around the midwest for the most part. As they get older, we hope to change that a bit but for our mini vacation this time, we chose Omaha, Nebraska. We've spent a couple odd days there over the years but decided to go spend a few this time while visiting some friends of ours that live there. The first touristy thing we did was go hit up the zoo for the kid's benefit. Omaha has a fine zoo and you can see lots of things in it that we don't see in our local zoo, including the aquatic humans seen above. I watched them for awhile and with their garbage bag, I suspected they were removing a dead fish from the exhibit but after ten minutes, the two men mostly just struggled to get their girth underwater. We finally moved on so I never did figure it out.

I loved zoos as a kid but as I got older, I really hated to see all these animals locked up in cells so humans could gawk at them. I know that some good and awareness comes out of zoos and since my children are in the loving them stage, we do take them but I hope as they get older, they too will realize the downside to zoos. One benefit is that it gives me a chance to practice my photography skills which have been rusting away these last few years.

When I photograph animals in the wild, they are alert and moving around which makes them hard to photograph. Zoo animals on the other hand are mostly inactive and asleep. The above tiger however did suddenly rear up onto the glass separating him from a meal causing the prospective bipedal meals to scatter in a hurry before crushing back towards the class to see who could get a photo-op.

A pair of the rare alert animals playing under the supervision of their lioness mother just off the picture.

The Omaha Zoo has an aquarium too as part of their exhibits and I really enjoyed that part. I am tall which allows me to stand up above the extremely smudged lowers glass portions and get some decent photographs.

This is perhaps my favorite photo that I took during our visit. I just never tire of watching jellyfish do their thing.

We spent a long morning at the zoo mostly seeing all the inside exhibits. Despite me warning everyone to dress appropriately since it was still officially winter, all the girls only brought light jackets and were cold the entire time out in Nebraska. So we didn't get a chance to walk around and see all the outside animals like elephants, bears, giraffes and such. Makes me wonder who the truly caged animals were.