Jonathon Weiss has amassed a collection of thousands of artifacts related to the subjects of health and public safety in the United States.
He brought a sampling of those items to Clarinda for an exhibit Friday, Nov. 22, and Saturday, Nov. 23, at the Lied Public Library.
The material on display, representing different eras in American history, included surgical equipment and supplies, pharmaceutical bottles, X-rays, information on emergency medical procedures -- and even reminders of what would be needed in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Weiss, who is originally from Eldora, said he began acquiring items as a teenager.
“Originally it was out of curiosity,” he said. “I would buy small things, like books. But as it started growing, I began to see a need for education and history.”
He was intrigued by how medical practices had evolved over time, as had equipment and instruments used, and he thought it would be beneficial if people learned the progress that has been made from previous periods.
Weiss cited one example: Operating tables once made of steel weighed about 138 pounds, compared to current aluminum tables that weigh around 15 pounds.
About two years ago, he said, he finally realized “how much stuff I had.”
Then, after selecting certain representative items, Weiss created a display that -- at the start of this year -- he began taking to locations in Iowa. Along with Clarinda, other sites for his display have been Marshalltown, Roland, Knoxville, Independence and Oelwein.
The large quantity of items assembled for the exhibit in Clarinda represent “only about a quarter of what I have,” Weiss said.
The exhibit has also been taken to cities in other places in the country.
“We partnered with other organizations and traveled all over,” he said. “We made it traveling originally for the purpose of not having to worry about not having a building, but also so we could make it more accessible for other individuals.”
As the number of items in the collection continued to grow, he said, “we realized that it was turning into an actual museum, instead of just a small exhibit.”
Halfway through the year, Weiss’s collection achieved recognition as an official repository -- the National Health and Public Safety History Museum, of which he is the curator.
He also received an offer to house his material in a building in Dublin, Texas, and will be moving all of the items there at the beginning of 2020.
Weiss has obtained artifacts from a variety of sources.
“I’ve been collecting at every antique store I could possibly find, along with all sorts of online auctions,” he said. Items have also been acquired from private collectors and through donations by historical societies.
The fact that so many artifacts still exist, and are still in good condition, was a surprise to Weiss.
“I have collected things dating all the way back to the 1600s, and from the Revolutionary War,” he said. “Some of the pieces were in immaculate condition.”
He said he recently “picked up an entire embalming room from the 1800s.”
Weiss is particularly interested in acquiring items from former mental hospitals -- including the Clarinda Mental Health Institute. It was closed in 2015 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad.
Weiss said he had contacted officials with the Iowa Department of Corrections, which now has jurisdiction over what was once the MHI, to see if material in a museum located in a section of the building could be obtained.
“The items in that museum have a lot of historical significance,” he said, noting that they would be a valuable resource for researchers pursuing projects related to how mental health care has changed in the United States.
Weiss has been successful in acquiring some items from the Independence Mental Health Institute, which is still in operation.
Once all of Weiss’s material has been moved to the museum in Texas, he plans to expand the availability of information about the collection through what he called an online “virtual learning center.”
It will feature exhibits from the collection, along with more exhibits on topics not covered in the physical location. Also provided will be a digital library of archived material and books as they enter the collection and are converted into a format that can be accessed by computer.
Weiss said he has no plans to curtail his acquisition of artifacts.
“I want to make as much material available for people as possible,” he said.
Funding for the presence of the exhibit in Clarinda was provided by the Clarinda Public Library Foundation.