Museum Premiers new “House of Light” Exhibition

Old Independence Regional Museum in Batesville is premiering a traveling exhibit that tells the story of Arkansas’ newest found cultural treasure. “Hugo and Gayne Preller’s House of Light” exhibition opens at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 13, with a program by curator Chris Engholm and Gayne Preller Schmidt. After that, the Batesville Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors will provide a ribbon-cutting at the museum, declaring the exhibit open to the public until this June when it will travel to other museums.

The exhibition recounts Hugo and Gayne Preller’s daring journey down the Mississippi River and up the White River in a “floating photographic gallery” during the early 1900s. It recreates how the Prellers became pioneering recorders of life in the Arkansas Delta.

“If you love great images and the romance of rivers, you will thoroughly enjoy this real-life epic and the photographic legacy as expressed in the exhibit,“ Twyla Gill Wright said. “Our museum is proud to have been a partner in its development.”

Hugo and Gayne Preller created an archive of photography and art that is now acclaimed as the earliest and most diverse in the Arkansas Delta. Their incredible family story and professional work spanned over half a century, from 1895 to 1950. As Allyn Lord, director of the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History and an advisor on the exhibit, said, “This is an amazing uncovering of history, not just Arkansas history, but the history of photography, of riverboat culture and of race relations.”

The discovery of this photographic archive is an adventure story on its own. Chris Engholm, an author and photographer, tells how it all began. “In the fall of 2012, river rat Jim Fortune and I began paddling 400 miles down the White River with the goal of collecting artworks and stories for a book titled ‘White River Memoirs.’ After we tied up at Chickasaw Crossing, the original name for Augusta, I met the Preller’s granddaughter, Gayne Preller Schmidt. From that moment on we forged a friendship. I soon learned that her grandparents were early photographers and that she had kept many of their photographs stored away.”

Engholm continued, “Over time, we unearthed hundreds of the Preller’s prints and glass negatives in boxes. Gayne gave me permission to digitize them and together we began to envision a traveling exhibition that would showcase her grandparents’ work. We also began the process of restoring and organizing a permanent Preller archive of over 2,200 images and objects.”

Hugo Preller was an artist who painted scenes on mussel shells and other materials, plus taking photographs of outdoor scenes. His wife, Gayne, was an engaging businesswoman in the community and people came from all over the region to be photographed by her, including African Americans whom she photographed with great artistry. She was one of the region’s earliest female portraitists, and almost certainly the first female commercial photographer in the Arkansas Delta.

Engholm explained, “To create the exhibit, I formed an advisory group of scholars, and, in partnership with the Old Independence Regional Museum in Batesville, secured a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council. Early on, the late photographer-historian, Greer Lile, was a supporter and granted the use of his model of the Prellers’ Floating Gallery. This exhibition is dedicated to him.”

Engholm has also created a teaching kit to accompany the exhibit to be used in conjunction with school tours. Museum humanities educator Amanda Nikkel stated, “We invite schools to plan a visit during this exhibition before the school year ends.” Southside history teacher “Cissy” Dowdy wholeheartedly agrees, since she also served as an educational advisor on the project.

The opening exhibit features 75 Preller works of art and photography, family artifacts, and the 4-foot long model of the floating gallery. A standing panel of original doors from the Preller studio in Augusta will duplicate their setting for portrait photography. A book about the Prellers and their work will be published in early 2016.

The program will be free and open to the public. Normal museum hours are: Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and from 1:30 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $3.00 for adults, $2.00 for seniors and $1.00 for children. The museum is located at 380 South 9th street, between Boswell and Vine Streets in Batesville.

Old Independence is a regional museum serving a 12-county area: Baxter, Cleburne, Fulton, Independence, Izard, Jackson, Marion, Poinsett, Sharp, Stone, White, and Woodruff. Parts of these present-day counties comprised the original Independence County in 1820’s Arkansas territory.