Roger and Kathy Reitmeier (at left) admired an exhibit of eagle-adorned badges and uniforms.
Collector and donor Preston Cook spoke at Minnesota Marine Art Museum’s opening reception.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Pried from a federal court building just before demolition, National Eagle Center (NEC) Gallery Curator Anna Christenson hefted the aluminum casting into place. It was far bigger than any manhole cover, remarkably heavy, and emblazoned with an eagle clutching symbols of war and peace in its talons and a Latin scroll in its beak: “Out of many, one.” The Great Seal of the U.S. was surrounded by fine art paintings, patriotic trinkets, and a Wild West-themed lunchbox — all of them bearing eagles. Christenson’s colleague, Ed Hahn, remarked, “As cool as this is, it’s just scratching the surface.”
A teaser from the NEC’s new collection of artwork and artifacts depicting eagles in American culture is now on display at the Eagle Center in Wabasha and at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum (MMAM) in Winona. The eclectic eagle paraphernalia includes paintings by Andy Warhol and John James Audubon, military uniforms, domestic knick knacks, comic book covers, and posters for everything from the Grateful Dead to the National Rifle Association to Nicaraguan revolutionaries. Still, it is only around one percent of the roughly 25,000 items collector Preston Cook has donated to the Eagle Center. The two museums are working together to make long-term plans for the collection and to prepare this summer’s preview. MMAM curators Jon Swanson and Dave Casey poured through Cook’s voluminous collection trying to narrow down what to hang in Winona. “I think they’ve been dreaming in eagles,” MMAM Executive Director Nicole Chamberlain-Dupree said. The collection is still growing, Casey stated. “Every time we go in, [Cook] says, ‘Look at what I just got,’” he explained.
Last week, the opening reception for this tip-of-the-iceberg show was made even sweeter by the announcement that Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed a bonding bill that will provide $8 million for the Eagle Center’s planned $16-million expansion to house Cook’s collection and improve its care and showcasing of live eagles. “We’re elated,” NEC Executive Director Rolf Thompson said. “This is very, very significant for Wabasha and the whole region and the state, really.” In dollar terms, the expansion will be even larger than the NEC’s construction in 2007, Thompson added.
The expansion is still a couple years away, and the Eagle Center still needs to fundraise several million more dollars. A portion of the $8-million bonding proceeds will be used by the city of Wabasha to improve its riverfront. “We’re at the very early stages of our capital campaign, but part of what this bonding will do is assure donors this project is real and has legs — and wings,” Thompson explained.
In the meantime, locals and visitors can get a sneak peak of Cook’s collection at the MMAM and NEC this summer. The two exhibits are open until October 14. NEC members get in free at the MMAM and vice versa. Next weekend, as part of the MMAM’s Second Saturday series, admission will be $1 and Eagle Center staff will bring one of its live eagle ambassadors to the Winona museum.
“Finally, I’m not a hoarder anymore,” Cook joked at last week’s opening. Cook credits the 1965 black-and-white comedy “A Thousands Clowns” with inspiring his eagle habit. “There was a line in that that changed my life, ‘You can’t have too many eagles,’ and I took that literally,” he explained. As a Vietnam veteran, his military dress clothes had eagles molded onto the buttons. When he left the service, he kept the buttons. It was the start of his collection, and he wore those same buttons on his jacket on Thursday night.
From Native Americans to the Roman Empire, eagles seem to have cross-cultural appeal. Why do humans like eagles so much? “It means power and independence and freedom,” Cook responded. “It means all of those things. It means many things to different people.”
“Its beauty, its prominence … bald eagles are magnificent creatures. They inspire awe,” Thompson said. From military veterans to Native Americans, many people have strong connections to eagles as symbols, Christenson stated. “I’ve heard many different stories of what eagles mean to different people,” she added.
There will be an opening reception at the NEC on Thursday, June 7, from 5-6:30 p.m. Cook will give “Walk & Talk” tours on Wednesday, June 13, from 6-7 p.m. at the MMAM and on Thursday, June 21, from 5-7 p.m. at the NEC. Admission for those tours is free. For more information, visit www.nationaleaglecenter.org or www.mmam.org.