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Volume 38, Number 5September/October 1987

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Middle West Meets Middle East

Written and photographed by William Tracy

The lands along the Missouri-Kansas border are a green patchwork of lush creek bottoms and rolling pastures, where eastern forests begin their retreat to western prairies. Farms, small towns and cities pulse with the strength of the American heartland.

Spring here brings thunderstorms to soak the earth and renew the cycle of life. As dusk comes, cottonwoods stir in the warm breeze, robins pull worms from damp lawns and lightning bugs flash their Morse messages against darkening skies. In overgrown hollows, deer and quail move through groves of hawthorn, oak and walnut, and water moccasins hunt frogs in pristine lotus ponds. The meadows are fringed with daisies, clover and wild rose. Everywhere it is green, and it is a long way from Saudi Arabia.

Yet between Kingsville and Lone Jack, in Missouri's rural Johnson County, sits a green metal building crammed to the rafters with artifacts and exhibits from that ancient desert land. "The first impression ... is of a hobby gone wild," wrote the Kansas City Star. But in fact, the Nance Museum and Library of Antiquities is much more: It is at once a valuable learning resource, an act of love, and the fulfillment of a remarkable couple's personal vision.

The Nance Museum houses an impressive collection of everyday objects, textiles, costumes, jewelry, curios and photographs from Saudi Arabia and such nearby Middle Eastern countries as Egypt, Syria and Yemen. It includes one of only three collections of Bedouin artifacts accessible to the American public, along with the John Topham collection (See page 30) and a collection at the Museum of Natural History in New York.

The museum in Missouri reflects the dedication of Paul and Colleen Nance, a warmly outgoing American couple who lived in Saudi Arabia for 31 years and came home to the Show-Me State to share their experience and their love for the Middle East with families, friends and neighbors in their native Middle West.

Paul Nance was born on a family farm near Lawson, Missouri, north of Kansas City, and remembers a childhood touched by the hard times of the Depression years, sustained by the ethic of hard work and his father's religious faith. Colleen grew up in a family of 10 children in the town of Baxter Springs in southeastern Kansas.

In 1952 Paul Nance joined the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) and the young couple moved to Saudi Arabia. The Nances found the company's Arab employees striving to improve the lives of their own families in a harsh and difficult environment with much the same determination and faith which they themselves had known at home.

The Nances made friends among their Arab neighbors and fellow employees and, as the years passed, grew to respect and admire the richness of their culture and traditions. At first they collected Saudi Arabian artifacts and souvenirs of their travels strictly for their own enjoyment. Gradually, though, an idea began to germinate. They had brought their American skills and experience to Saudi Arabia; why not share with those at home what they had seen and learned - and acquired - during their years abroad?

So some 10 years before they were to leave the Kingdom, the Nances began to fill the gaps in their collections, adding to their pieces of Bedouin jewelry, traditional clothing, woven baskets and hand-loomed rugs, hand-crafted objects of wood, leather, copper and brass. They sought out paintings, bought books. Their youngest son, James, made photographic prints of 250 lithographs of Middle Eastern scenes by Scottish artist David Roberts, who visited the region in the 1830's (See Aramco World, March-April 1970).

And they acquired the ultimate prize in their collection: a 6.7- by 16.7-meter (22- by 55-foot) Bedouin goat-hair tent, complete with most of its furnishings, which they purchased from a family which had made it their movable home in the deserts of northern Saudi Arabia for more than 40 years.

As their plans gelled, the Nances were faced with two opposing viewpoints about the legitimacy of their plan. In the world of collectors and museums, some believe that historical artifacts or unusual handicrafts are best left in their regions of origin, as part of the cultural legacy of future generations there. Others favor protecting and displaying such objects abroad, for the sake of cross-cultural understanding. The Nances, respecting both schools of thought, submitted a complete list of the items they had assembled to the Saudi Arabian Department of Antiquities before sending them out of the Kingdom. The officials concerned gave their approval and, indeed, applauded their efforts.

During this final two years with Aramco, Nance helped to coordinate the early development of an ambitious Aramco exhibit center, soon to be formally opened in Dhahran, where visitors will learn at first hand about the Arab technical heritage, science and the oil industry. He joined the American Association of Museums and attended its meetings when he could. When Nance finally retired from Aramco in 1983 he and Colleen were ready to build a museum of their own. And it was not to be in a bustling U.S. coastal metropolis, but somewhere in the long-remembered green countryside of middle America from which their own dreams had sprung.

The site they chose was a 65-hectare (160-acre) farm some 50 kilometers (30 miles) southeast of Kansas City, bought as long ago as 1960 to serve as a vacation home during their leaves from Arabia. They had terraced the slopes of the land, planted several thousand trees, and constructed a pond and a three-hectare (eight-acre) fishing lake. Here they would plan and build the museum to house their collections.

It was indeed the heartland.

Transcontinental travelers on US 50, the historic highway that spans the breadth of the United States from Annapolis to San Francisco, pass the Nance Museum three kilometers (two miles) to the north. The geographic center of the 48 contiguous states lies only half a state away, in north central Kansas. In the region are places with names like Liberty and Independence - places associated with authentic American heroes and villains familiar to generations of school children: men like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock, Cole Younger and the notorious James brothers, Mormon leader Joseph Smith and populist president Harry Truman. Here, in the mid-19th century, steamboats carried settlers up the Missouri River to the staging points of the prairie schooners and Conestoga wagons, westward bound on the Sante Fe, Oregon and California Trails. The first railroad reached nearby Saint Joseph in 1859, the short-lived Pony Express set out not many kilometers from here in 1860, and in 1863 an important battle in America's Civil War was fought in Lone Jack, just six kilometers (four miles) to the west.

In 1983, when the Nances arrived home in Missouri, they formally established a private non-profit foundation, assembled a board of trustees and compiled bylaws for the proposed museum, library and ethnic gardens. Among their objectives, Nance wrote, was to enhance understanding of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East by displaying objects acquired there, by interpreting them to museum visitors, by lending exhibits to others and by lecturing to schools and other groups. The work was to be its own reward: Although the foundation accepts donations, it charges no fees.

Their budget was limited. The Nances searched the area for affordable, sometimes used, glass cases, partitions and other furnishings. Over two years, they planned the ethnic gardens below the house - there were to be Islamic, Chinese and Greek gardens - and organized the exhibits, dividing the museum displays into three sections. The first, on Bedouins, includes half the length and width of the large tent with its furnishings, including kilims (flat-woven rugs), and a special display on the coffee ceremony. The second section, on town dwellers, includes knotted carpets and such items as musical instruments, mashrabiya windows (See Aramco World, July-August 1974), a handsome wooden chest from Medina, a glass mosque lamp, samples of ornate Arabic calligraphy (See Aramco World, September-October 1979), and an illuminated page from an antique copy of the Koran. The third section, on ancient monuments, displays the Roberts prints, maps, jewelry and replicas of Egyptian statuary.

The centerpiece of the Islamic Gardens is a one-fifth scale recreation of those in front of India's Taj Mahal (See Aramco World, July-August 1968), with emphasis on Central Asian plantings able to survive Missouri's harsh winters. With a gift from close Saudi-American friends, the Khalid al-Turki family of al-Khobar, the Nances constructed a fountain and a cruciform pool, with arms facing the cardinal points of the compass, representing the rising and setting sun and flowing rivers.

In August 1985, two years after their "retirement," Paul and Colleen Nance officially opened their museum. Family, board members, representatives from other museums and the local press were in attendance; friends came from west and east. In honor of each guest present the Nances planted an ash tree flanking the path which stretches from the house and museum down the grassy slopes toward the Islamic Gardens, fountain and ponds.

Since then, between April and October of each year, the Nances have opened their museum to the public. They greet visitors personally and walk them through the collections and grounds. They receive students of all ages: Girl Scouts, Kiwanis Club members and senior citizens. Sixty-five groups came the first year alone, and today the museum guest book shows visitors from some 20 states and several foreign countries, including many - both Arabs and Americans - from Saudi Arabia.

In one week in May this year, Paul and Colleen Nance had an unusually heavy schedule of visitors. It began with a Sunday reception for journalists and journalism students. As rain pounded on the museum's metal roof, Paul Nance showed slides of Egyptian jewelry and the gold of Tutankhamen (See Aramco World, May-June 1977). The sun reappeared while the guests toured the Islamic Gardens' rich display of red and white spring peonies, in full bloom and dripping with moisture.

Monday morning came the first of five scheduled visits by second- through sixth-graders from the Independence Missouri Program for Academically and Creatively Talented youngsters (IMPACT). This spring their "special learning project" was the Middle East, and their field trips to the Nance Museum, followed by a visit to a Kansas City mosque, were the high points of the semester.

Each morning that week, Colleen presented a slide show on some of the modern aspects of Saudi Arabia to about half the children, while Paul spoke on the traditions and customs of the Kingdom to another group gathered on a large Persian carpet in the museum.

He made a few key points to the students before drawing their attention to several of the objects and inviting them to explore the exhibits for themselves. Along with Christianity and Judaism, he pointed out, Islam is one of the world's three great monotheistic religions, sharing a belief in one God and the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. The Arabian Peninsula, with Makkah as the goal of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, has long served as a cultural bridge between Africa and Asia, and sits astride vital trade routes from the Orient to the Mediterranean. The Arabs were the custodians and elaborators of classical Greek science during the Dark Ages of Europe. And today, Saudi Arabia holds in trust a quarter of the world's known petroleum reserves.

"The museum was smaller than ones I've visited with my parents," said sixth-grader Emily Stephens, from Blackburn Elementary School, "but I liked it because it's more open. You can touch things. I smelled some frankincense, for example. In most places it would be locked inside a glass case. My favorite thing was the Bedouin tent, actually set up, with cooking things, costumes, and a camel saddle. We saw pictures in books in class, but I didn't realize it would be so big."

Fourth-grader Christopher Williams from William Southern School had carved a set of prayer beads, or misbaha, for his class project (See Aramco World, November-December 1968). He particularly enjoyed the collection of beads in the museum, the displays of jewelry and the food and water bags made from animal skins. "I like the idea of living in a tent," he said. "I'm going to join the Scouts."

"Until this year I didn't even know there was a Middle East," Glendale School fourth-grader Charley Jones said. "I was surprised by the sophistication of the Bedouins. The people in the desert use what they have available - wool, palm fronds, leather - and make the best of it."

Another Glendale boy liked seeing the khanjar (dagger) and 'ud (lute) on display. "My dad collects weapons and is interested in music," he said. Meghan, a sixth-grader from Santa Fe Trail School, studied the wedding dress displayed on a mannequin.

When the students had left Monday afternoon, Paul Nance dropped by the public library in Lone Jack (population about 400) to chat with the librarian and check on the display case of museum artifacts and art which he maintains there. Tuesday afternoon, the Nances loaded the trunk of their car with artifacts for a lecture at the middle school in Holden (population about 2,200). Three sixth-grade classes saw a slide show and passed around a basket of goat-hair yarn used for weaving. The children fanned themselves with notebooks in the hot and humid air, but the question-and-answer period following the lecture was spirited.

After the IMPACT group had left the museum on Wednesday, Paul drove over to look in on his display case at the Lees Summit branch of the Mid-Continent Library. (The Nances also maintain a display at a nearby university campus.) That evening, a neighbor lady pulled up in a van: Would the Nances please show the gardens and museum to her five German and two Swiss visitors? They did, and Paul patiently answered the guests' questions while the neighbor interpreted.

The weekly edition of the Holden Progress, delivered Thursday afternoon, included coverage of the previous Sunday's reception at the Nance Museum. On Friday morning the fifth and last group of IMPACT students came to the museum. And by now the four teachers were helping Paul and Colleen field the boys' and girls' questions with the ease of the old Middle East hands they had become.

Besides such extensive "in-house" activities, the Nances also run what they term their outreach program, lending exhibits and showing objects or slides at area schools, churches and civic clubs. They have provided an exhibit on Islam at a local Islamic conference, twice shown Middle Eastern jewelry (See Aramco World, March-April 1979) at gem and mineral shows, spoken on rugs and textiles to the Kansas City Weavers' Guild, and last year lectured to a school assembly of fourth- through twelfth-grade students at a nearby Air Force base.

Paul Nane has spoken to classes at Texas Christian University and lent artifacts and art to two Texas libraries. In 1985 he mounted one exhibit in the lobby of Dallas City Hall that was seen by an estimated 25,000 visitors, and another in the lobby of the Aramco Services Company's building in Houston.

This summer the museum's outreach extended in a new direction. The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan, is attempting to found an Arab folk museum and performing-arts center. Dearborn and the Detroit area are home to an Arab-American community of more than 250,000 people, and ACCESS contacted the Nance Museum for funding advice and support. The Nances responded by lending some 100 pieces for a display in the ACCESS offices and public spaces this summer, with other loans - including the Bedouin tent - being considered for the winter months.

From the beginning, Paul and Colleen Nance hoped their museum would become a resource and study center for young and old. It has. "Before this year," one of the impact children said, "All we knew about the Middle East was the pyramids and the deserts and that there was some fighting going on over there. Now we've learned about the people and their lives and something about their religion. Kids play soccer there too. If I grew up in Saudi Arabia it would probably be home for me, just like we feel in America."

The Nance's dream is helping to build a legacy of respect and understanding between the peoples of the two places that have been home to them: the American Middle West and the Arab Middle East.

William Tracy, long-time assistant editor of Aramco World, has recently completed a novel about Saudi Arabia. The Nance Museum can be reached at Route 1, Box313, Kingsville, Missouri 64061, U.S.A., or by phone at 816/566-2526.

This article appeared on pages 2-5 of the September/October 1987 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1987 images.