Jeff Morgan, Jeff.Morgan@iowa.gov,
MOINES) – For the first time since 1988, wildlife dioramas that enthralled and inspired generations of Iowans at the “Old Historical Building” in Des Moines will go on display Wednesday in a new museum exhibit at the State Historical Building.
“Captive Nature: The Wildlife Dioramas of Joseph Steppan” recognizes Steppan’s work in preserving Iowa wildlife – elk, turkey, prairie chicken, bears, waterfowl, fox, wolves, hawks, hummingbirds, moose and more – in the early 1900s.
“The wildlife dioramas remain a cherished memory of countless school field trips to the Old Historical Building,” said Cyndi Pederson, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. “We have received more questions about them than any other artifacts in our collection, and we are now able to put them on display to the public again.”
In the early 20th century, the museum began preserving the memory of the state’s disappearing wildlife, which was being eradicated or forced from their natural habitat by America’s westward expansion – settlers plowed Iowa’s fertile soil and cut through its native timber. Elk, turkey, prairie chicken, and bear were disappearing from the state and it seemed following generations would view Iowa’s native animals only as memories.
In 1910, 55-year-old Steppan came to Des Moines to serve as curator and taxidermist for the State Historical Society. He served in the Austrian and Dutch armies, hunted in Africa, traded furs for the Hudson Bay Company, and worked as a taxidermist for museums in Milwaukee and Chicago.
Through his activities from 1910 to 1935, he enlarged the State Historical Museum’s collection and transformed animal skins into beautiful wood and glass-encased dioramas.
“The dioramas were, for many students, the first glimpse of native wildlife in a time when nature seemed to be vanishing,” Pederson said. “Although wildlife now flourishes in Iowa, these dioramas are still great resources for teachers, parents and grandparents who want to discuss or teach the history, diversity and conservation of Iowa’s wildlife.”
In 1987, museum staff relocated dioramas and more than 100,000 other artifacts to the new State Historical Building at 600 E. Locust Street in Des Moines.
The small dioramas were preserved while larger ones containing moose, elk, bison, bear and eagles could not be removed intact from the Old Historical Building at 1112 E. Grand Avenue. Their specimens were incorporated into the museum’s “Delicate Balance” exhibit in 1987.
While the dioramas enjoyed immense popularity at the Old Historical Building, they suffered severe damage from decades of exposure to cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke; coal dust from the Old Historical Building’s coal-fired furnaces; extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity; and sun light.
“After they were relocated, the dioramas were placed in the State Historical Building’s climate-controlled storage area where they have been protected from further deterioration,” Pederson said.
The dioramas house wildlife that was taxidermied with technology of nearly 100 years ago, including the use of arsenic. The original wood casings are still intact, but museum staff had to replace the original glass, which was permeated with soot and grim from decades of neglect at the old building, and cleaned the wildlife artifacts with modern-day conservation methods and preservation treatments.
Today, the historic cases have been opened and cleaned for the first time in nearly 100 years and are being presented as examples of early 20th century museum displays and as samples of period wildlife.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs is responsible for developing the state’s interest in the areas of the arts, history and other cultural matters with the advice and assistance from its two divisions: the State Historical Society of Iowa and the Iowa Arts Council. The DCA preserves, researches, interprets and promotes an awareness and understanding of local, state and regional history and stimulates and encourages the study and presentation of the performing and fine arts and public interest and participation in them. It implements tourism-related art and history projects as directed by the general assembly and designs a comprehensive, statewide, long-range plan with the assistance of the Iowa Arts Council to develop the arts in Iowa. More information about DCA is available at www.culturalaffairs.org.
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