Kansas Museum Opens Well-Timed Exhibit on Disasters, Severe Weather

Coming off a year in which Kansas endured destructive ice storms, killer tornadoes and severe flooding, the state history museum has opened an exhibit on extreme weather.

Organizers say the timing is a coincidence, because they have been working on the exhibit for more than a year. But they also say it's a reminder of why Kansans routinely look to the sky and what outsiders remember most about the state.

The exhibit, "Forces of Nature," opened Friday at the Kansas Museum of History in west Topeka and will run through Jan. 4, 2009.

"Weather is a huge part of our identity," said Rebecca Martin, project manager for the exhibit. "People around the world will forever associate us with a really famous tornado in 'The Wizard of Oz."'

The Kansas State Historical Society also is hoping to collect Kansans' recollections of memorable storms. The exhibit includes a small booth with a microphone and computer, so that visitors can tell and record their stories.

"We often think — let's admit it — that other residents of other states are really wimps, right? That we really know how to survive weather here," said Jennie Chinn, the society's executive director. "We all have our family folklore that revolves around weather."

The exhibit puts photos of power lines and utility poles sagging under the weight of ice from the winter of 2006-07 next to a photo from an 1886 blizzard.

Photos from a night of tornadoes in May 2007 that leveled most of Greensburg in southwest Kansas and killed at least 13 people are next to images from a twister that left 16 dead in Topeka in 1966.

Debris from both also are on display, and the museum built a mock storm shelter just inside the doors to the exhibit, with film footage from a 2004 tornado in south-central Kansas playing just beyond it.

Chinn said those reminders of destruction and death show that weather is a serious subject.

"It's not a topic to be taken lightly at all," she said.

For Rosette Randel, the exhibit stirred up memories of watching a tornado as a college student and having a twister roar by her house in the 1990s. The Seneca resident brought her son, Garrett, to the museum.

She recalled that the Seneca tornado lifted her home off the basement just enough that she could see a bit of light.

"We grabbed the dogs and went to the basement," she said. "We really didn't have a storm shelter. We were in the corner of the basement."

The exhibit also deals with water, highlighting major floods along the Kansas River in 1903 and 1951. Related artifacts include the Charles Curtis family Bible, rescued by the future senator and vice president's wife from their north Topeka home in the first disaster.

There's also earth and fire. One display shows film from severe dust storms in the 1930s. The exhibit on fire deals with prairie fires, both the uncontrolled ones farmers and ranchers fought for decades and the controlled burns of modern times used to clear fields.

Martin said work on the exhibit began early in 2007. Researchers examined diaries and other historical sources to pull out Kansans' recollections of extreme weather.

"Prairie fires, there are tons of diaries and reminiscences, letters, about living through prairie fires and trying to fight them," she said. "There are so many resources."

But the exhibit's opening — and a preview Thursday evening — came with sunny skies and mild temperatures.

"I think it's ironic that we're opening an exhibit on extreme weather on a day that's so picture-perfect," Chinn said.