The artwork in Melodie Chenevert’s home doesn’t reflect the sea or the forests surrounding Cannon Beach. She doesn’t display crafts by local artisans or books by Oregon authors — except the books Chenevert herself wrote.
But the home is devoted to art, nevertheless – a lost art.
The Lost Art of Nursing Museum is entirely contained in Melodie and Gary Chenevert’s Tolovana Park home.
From the historic posters, magazine covers and paintings of nurses that consume nearly every inch of wall space, to the dolls and stuffed animals (including Miss Piggy) dressed in nursing outfits on every surface, Melodie’s living and dining rooms and the entrance hall is, indeed, a museum.
In a corner of the dining room is an early 20th century wheelchair. In another corner of the living room is a cape worn by a former nursing school director who once lived in Arch Cape. Beneath the glass in the coffee table lies Marybel, surrounded by leg and arm casts, crutches and measles spots; she is the “doll who gets well,” according to the original 60-year-old box.
“Most people who come here look at everything and try to absorb it. There’s always something they’ve never seen before,” Melodie said.
When she graduated from high school in Iowa in the late 1950s, Melodie, who really wanted to be a writer, found that more practical career opportunities for young women were limited: She could become a teacher or a nurse. Since she could “dissect things without throwing up and was good at math,” she earned a nursing diploma from Methodist-Kahler School of Nursing in Rochester, Minn. She then received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Washington, where she met Gary, a nuclear physicist.
Melodie worked as a nurse for several years as she followed her husband’s career. In 1982, she was asked to create a nursing program at Clatsop Community College. It was during that year she decided her love of the Pacific Ocean was real, and she vowed to return to the North Coast.
Her love for writing also was real, so Melodie eventually pursued a master’s degree in journalism and began writing books for nurses who wanted more from their careers. Her books segued into speaking engagements throughout the U.S. and in several countries.
Throughout her travels, Melodie always found time to scour antique stores, flea markets and garage sales, searching for mementos that depicted nurses and encouraged pride and productivity in nursing.
After she and Gary decided to make Cannon Beach their permanent home five years ago, she started the museum. It’s open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays during the summer and by appointment during the rest of the year (contact information is on the website, www.pronurse.com). Admission is free.
The South Hemlock Street house, once owned and operated as a gift shop by Cannon Beach resident Marlene Laws, was already in a commercial zone. Melodie, in her often contrary way of thinking, decided that since those interested in tourism were always trying to put “heads in beds,” she might have something unusual to attract tourists.
“Nurses are always trying to get heads out of beds,” she said, laughing.
Museum visitors include current nurses, retired nurses relatives or friends of nurses and those who never considered being a nurse. She has had as many as 25 people come through on a Saturday and as many during midweek; they stay from 10 minutes to three hours, sharing memories, glancing at the nursing kitsch, browsing the nursing books, or buying specially made nursing stickers and necklaces.
Comments in the guest book include the words “amazing,” “awesome” and “fascinating.” One visitor called the museum a “joy-filled, magical journey through nursing.”
Eventually, Melodie wants to share her museum with a larger community, by housing it in a university or even creating a national nursing museum, possibly in Portland. “I would like to see the collection stay in the Northwest,” she said.
She worries that people will forget the time when nurses, like those in the historic posters and magazine covers, were celebrated and considered bold, noble and patriotic. She also worries that the mementos she has rescued over the years will once again be discarded.
Most of all, Melodie, whose first class in nursing school was called “nursing arts,” is concerned that the emphasis on nursing as an art as well as a science has been overlooked. That’s why a nursing museum is important, she added.
“I think there’s not much interest in history in general in this country,” she said. “With nurses, they’re so consumed by the here and now, they don’t think about their history or their future. They’re just trying to get through their shift.”