Historical Museum Offers First Public Tours of Permanent Collection in 114 Years

Contact: Jeff Morgan, Marketing/Public Relations, (515) 281-3858

(DES MOINES) Iowa – For the first time in its 114 years existence, the State Historical Museum will open its subterranean corridors and entire permanent collection to the general public for tours.

Beginning this month – in conjunction with a number of other fun-filled family events – curators will lead behind-the-scenes tours through the museum’s “vault,” an underground climate-controlled preservation center that is home to more than 100,000 artifacts. Curators will offer entertaining and educational presentations about the artifacts, the stories they hold about Iowa’s rich history, and how the museum collects, catalogs, preserves, studies, cares for, and displays them.

“Everybody remembers the thrill they had when they first explored Grandma’s attic,” said Anita Walker, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the museum’s storage facility, which is full of Iowa’s history, and to experience our collective past.”

About 10 percent of the museum’s collection is on display in public exhibits at any given time. The balance of the collection is stowed beneath the museum where artifacts can be repaired, restored, preserved and protected in an in-house conservation laboratory. Curators rotate artifacts into and out of the “vault” as new exhibits are developed, but this is the first time they will open the storage area for public tours.

“While the new facility allows for proper care and preservation of the collection, many people have been asking us for a long time to see some of the things they saw at the old building,” Walker said. “So, we’re doing this because we are responding to public demand.”

The museum collection, which was established in 1892 and originally housed in three rooms in the Capitol Building, had been in the Ola Babcock Miller Building (now home to the State Library of Iowa) at 1112 E. Grand Avenue from 1899 to 1987 before moving to its current location at 600 E. Locust Street.

The museum maintains many types of artifacts, including Civil War battle flags, natural history artifacts, textiles & clothing, quilts (including the famous Mary Barton Quilt Research Collection), political campaign & Iowa Caucus materials, and Native American artifacts.

The variety of the collection is broad and diverse, reflecting nearly every aspect of human history in Iowa. Among the many unusual and interesting items, the museum currently has a log cabin, cars, and square grand pianos... even a can of Spam.

Iowans' interaction with the natural world is also reflected in specimens from the animal world, including samples of real animal dung (used for fueling fires), stuffed animals and dioramas dating back to the mid-1800s, and an albino deer.

The public also will see many road signs and signs, a petrified beaver corkscrew underground burrow, a stuffed rooster, “Jack Pershing” used by Iowa farmers to raise funds during World War I for the Red Cross, old cars, an early Iowa State Patrol motorcycle, antique furniture, and the huge neon Traveler’s Life sign that was a downtown Des Moines landmark for generations.

The hour-long walking tours will be held at the State Historical Building, 600 E. Locust Street, Des Moines, in conjunction with a number of holiday events that will be fun for the entire family. Parents are encouraged to bring their children on the tours, which will be conducted on December 18, 21, and 23, 2004 at 10:30 a.m.; and December 28-30, 2004 at 1 p.m. Tour admission is $12 for adults, $8 for children 12 and under, and free for children 2 and under. Parents are encouraged to accompany younger children on the tours.

Museum tour tickets are available by calling (515) 283-1757; online at Reflections of Iowa, the Museum Store; or in the store located in the State Historical Building, 600 E. Locust. The behind-the-scenes tours are limited to groups of 20 so the public is encouraged to purchase tickets in advance.

Museum tour proceeds will provide funding for care and preservation of the Historical Museum collection. Tour participants may redeem their tickets at the Museum Store for a 10 percent discount on SHSI’s 2005 “Treasure the Times” calendar featuring historic images from the Society’s collection.

Beginning January 15, 2005, the tours will be held at 10:30 a.m. on the third Saturday of every month.

The tours will be held in conjunction with a number of fun-filled family events, including:

  • “Snowflake Saturday” on December 18, 2004 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (admission is $2 for children 2-14, adults are free)
  • “Cards, Boxes & Bows on December 21 and 23, 2004 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (FREE ADMISSION)
  • “Freedom Star: Gertie's Journey on the Underground Railroad, ” presented by the Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre on December 28-30, 2004 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., with workshops at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Admission is $5 per person for the performances and the workshops each.

The State Historical Society of Iowa, established in 1857, has a dual mission of preservation and education. As a trustee of Iowa's historical legacy, SHSI preserves, protects and shares Iowa's historical resources. As an advocate of understanding Iowa's past, SHSI educates Iowans of all ages, conducts and stimulates research, disseminates information, and encourages and supports historical preservation and education efforts of others throughout the state.






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