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Frozen in Time

exhibits at the durham museum always fresh, never frozen

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THE COAL-BLACK UNION PACIFIC ENGINE No. 1243 sits inert, a hulking behemoth from an era when steam was king and railroads epitomized American might in westward expansion and conquest.

Its nearest neighbor is the No. 1014 Benson Park- West streetcar, a sunset-yellow bauble that saw its last sunset in 1955 during its historic journey on the final run of the city’s once vibrant streetcar system.

Today they are ethereal ghosts haunting tracks to nowhere. Or are they?

A much more fitting intro would have been to describe them as “tracks to discovery” at the Durham Museum.

Omaha’s most stunning Art Deco treasures, Union Station and the Joslyn Art Museum, are celebrating 80th birthdays this year.

Built in 1931, the former Union Station was once one of the nation’s busiest terminals before finding new life in 1975 as the Durham Western Heritage Museum and later changing its name to the Durham Museum. It was the first major train station to champion the eclectic design style that flourished throughout the ‘30s.

The Joslyn Art Museum rose in marble that same year as a beacon in pink for culture in a city formerly known for its smoky gambling dens and bawdy houses of ill repute.

For far too many, history has been consigned to the intellectually laissez-faire and decidedly irrelevant realm of dusty bookshelves and musty relics. In poll after disturbing poll, it is increasingly evident that a growing number of our neighbors have only the vaguest understanding of history, of who we are, how we got here, and where we are going.

But the building hovering above the tracks below 10th Street, in this life and in its former one, has always been about who we are, how we got here, and where we are going, explained Christi Janssen, the executive director of the museum that is anything but frozen in time.

“On January 15, 1931, Omaha’s Union Station opened its doors to the public, connecting tens of thousands of visitors to the rest of the country,” Janssen said. “Eighty years later, Union Station connects generations.”

Not all of the trains are at the Durham lie dormant. Some stir from a deep slumber with every new wave of visitors.

A RECENT VISIT FOUND A CLUTH of Jackson Elementary School kindergartners on a summer school field trip “oohing” and “aahing” when a miniature train set sprang to life. It’s a crowd favorite, this sprawling, HO-scale vista of Americana complete with a drive-in movie whose twin bill marquee never changes.

A more contemplative “indoor voice” tone followed when the kids made their way to the next stop on an itinerary of wonder. Is it just possible that a real tepee once stood above the banks of the muddy Missouri on the very spot of the replica where they enjoyed learning about the eponymous tribe that lent its name to the their city?

How could they possibly forget any of the jawdropping sights and insights encountered all throughout the station once they crossed under the original “To Trains” sign, the one that acts as a portal to new worlds of discovery?

The utility of railroading, once the most romantically charming of people-movers, seems now relegated mostly to movement of the coal that once powered the mighty engines of travel and commerce.

“Through an ever-changing line-up of exhibitions, programs and events, we strive to be that ‘utility’ that brings the young and the young at heart together,” Janssen said. “The station’s purpose may have changed but its mission hasn’t– to serve the people of Omaha.”

And as for those kindergartners? Will they be able to buck the trend of America’s gradual decline into a country of those who don’t know their own past?

Let’s hope that those kids– surrounded by and immersed in history at the Durham Museum– heard the faint echoes of the Omaha Tribe, the spirit of the aptly named people whose name means “those who go against the current.”



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