By Steven Jackson’12
I stepped into The Angel Museum one sunny afternoon last week, joined by Tim Lawrence’12. Volunteer Deanne Frick was nice enough to show us around the collection, which was no small task. With approximately 12,000 angels on display, there’s a lot to see.
Deanne bustled through the collection, pointing out the especially interesting pieces. “Oh, I have to tell you another story,” she would say, leading us to another display case of curios. The museum is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the single largest angel collection, she said, pointing out a copy of the book on display.
It’s hard to describe the size of the angel collection. The entire second story of the museum is packed wall to wall with glass display cases, each with a different theme. It’s a short walk from the Hallmark case—angels manufactured by the greeting card company—to the Japanese angel case, or the Zodiac angel case.
The collection runs the gamut from standard antique to oddity. The smallest angel is the size of a housefly, capped under a thimble-sized glass case. An angel made of meringue sits surreptitiously among ceramic cherubs. It’s hard to see that it’s made of frosting—Deanne has to point it out to us.
Near the entry, a couple display cases are devoted to Oprah’s Angels, an exhibit of about 600 black angels donated to the museum by Oprah Winfrey in 2001. Oprah mentioned in a 1998 interview with Cher that black angels were hard to find. Her fans responded by sending her hundreds of figurines—more than she knew what to do with—and she gave them to The Angel Museum.
The Angel Museum is housed in an old Catholic church, built in 1914 to serve Italian immigrants in Beloit; the round stained-glass windows have remained in the building are originals. In 1988, the parish was closed after its pastor died. Beloit College bought the building and used it for storage. In the mid-’90s, the city began renovations on the riverfront, and called for the church to be demolished. Former parishioners urged that the building be spared, and the Beloit Historic Preservation Commission agreed to save the church if parishioners could find a suitable use for it.
Enter the Bergs.
Joyce and Lowell Berg had been collecting angel figurines since the ’70s, and had amassed about 10,000 pieces at that point. Word spread, and people would often visit their house requesting to view the collection. The Bergs were looking for a venue to share their massive collection, and the church seemed like the perfect place.
After extensive planning, it was decided that the building would become the Angel Museum. The Bergs and former parishioners formed a non-profit to run the museum, and the city took ownership of the building and registered it as an historical landmark. After renovations, The Angel Museum opened in 1998. The museum rents the church from the city for one dollar a year.
The Bergs first started collecting angels in 1976, when they came across a small porcelain figurine of two angels on a see-saw. They bought the piece, and began a lifelong passion for angel collecting. But even before the see-saw, it seems like angels were in the cards for the Bergs. A display case in the museum features three Berg family heirlooms: a buckle, a button, and a medal—all with cherub designs on them.
Lowell Berg passed away several years ago, but Joyce continues to collect angels. With the collection growing all the time, it’s difficult to know exactly how large it is. At last count in 2008, the Berg angels numbered over 13,600. Joyce keeps almost 2,000 of them in her home.
The museum is run by volunteers from the community. Deanne, our tour guide for the day, started volunteering around the city after her husband passed away. She was looking for activities to stay busy and active. “You get into your shell, you know,” she said. “I volunteered at a few places and finally ended up here.”
The Angel Museum is unique, to say the least. With admission for students only $4, it’s hard to come up with an excuse not to make a visit.