Mammoth: Witness to Change
In preparation for building the new Allied Insurance and Farmland Insurance parking ramp in downtown Des Moines, support pillars were formed by drilling down to bedrock with an enormous auger and pouring reinforced columns of concrete. On August 14, 2001, the auger struck bedrock—and bone. Construction workers recognized the significance of the discovery and eventually the mammoth bones were donated to the State Historical Museum and are on display in this fascinating exhibit. This exhibit also displays an impressive full-skeleton replica of a Hebior mammoth found in southeastern Wisconsin in 1994.
Rand McNally Globe
This historic globe made of spun aluminum by Rand McNally in 1949 was installed in the lobby of the Des Moines Register & Tribune Company in 1950 to commemorate 100 years of publishing. It remained there for 63 years until it was donated to the Museum in November 2013. Rand McNally artisans spent 3,000 hours hand-painting the globe which measures 6 feet in diameter and weighs 150 pounds.
Wings Over Iowa
Three vintage aircraft are suspended from the ceiling of the Museum’s atrium:
Adventures Abroad with Al Bell
William Allen "Al" Bell, of Menlo, Iowa, visited hundreds of Iowa schools between 1949 and 1979 sharing artifacts, stories and films from his travels around the globe. He worked at WHO Radio in Des Moines and KIOA in Ames, Iowa. His energetic and enthusiastic presentations are fondly remembered by Iowa school children and some of the artifacts from Mr. Bell's travels are now on display.
Crystal Treasures from Iowa’s Quarries and Mines
This display case highlights some of the beautiful crystal formations discovered in Iowa coal mine and quarry waste piles.
Geode: State Rock of Iowa
One of the most productive and famous collecting regions for geodes is an area around Keokuk, Iowa. Due to the prominence of Iowa geodes, in 1967, the Iowa General Assembly declared the geode as the official “State Rock” of Iowa. This display case highlights the beauty of geodes and the variety of minerals found in the State Rock of Iowa.
The Delicate Balance
This expansive exhibit offers an in-depth view of Iowa’s abundant natural resources from prehistoric times to the present day. Explore signs of ancient life discovered in Iowa’s prairies and streams—mammoth bones, shark skeletons, and other remnants of animal and plant life. Discover extraordinary ancient skills practiced by those who lived in Iowa long ago and the results of their artistry—buffalo headdress, clay pots, buffalo tooth necklace, beaded dress and doll. Learn how people have used Iowa’s natural resources: powering water wheels with streams and rivers to grind grain and cut lumber; cultivating fertile land for crop production; hunting animals for food, fur and skins; mining for coal, including pony mines. Stand in a cramped coal mine, listen to miners at work and drill a shot hole into the coal. See the beautiful displays of Iowa’s wildlife and learn about both successful and unsuccessful efforts to conserve this valuable resource.
Captive Nature: The Wildlife Dioramas of Joseph Steppan
In the early 20th century, the State Historical Society began preserving the memory of the state’s disappearing wildlife, which was being forced from their natural habitat by America’s westward expansion. 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, Joseph Steppan came to Des Moines to serve as curator and taxidermist for the State Historical Society. Through his efforts from 1910 to 1935, Steppan enlarged the Museum’s collection and transformed animal skins into beautiful wood and glass-encased dioramas that are currently on display.
Iowa and the Civil War: Nothing But Victory
With more than 300 significant artifacts and documents, this 10,000 square-foot exhibition recounts the first-hand experiences of Iowans at war and the communities that supported them. See the historic battle flags Iowa soldiers carried and the actual weaponry – cannons, guns and swords – they used while fighting in some of the most important events and turning points of the Civil War.Learn more about the Civil War Sesquicentennial (2010-2016).
This exhibit provides a map of the monuments and memorials on the Iowa State Capitol grounds. Photos and descriptions of many of the monuments are highlighted in this exhibit, including “Shattering Silence,” which commemorates many of the ground-breaking civil rights court rulings by the Iowa Supreme Court.
99 Counties of Iowa
This interactive exhibit is fun for visitors of all ages with a simple touch screen to explore fascinating historical and cultural information in all 99 Iowa counties. Information about Iowa’s historic sites and National Register of Historic Places is included, as well as information about where State Historical Museum artifacts originated.
Riding Through History
This 3,000-square-foot exhibition showcases artifacts, stories, photos and videos that reflect the cycling experience in Iowa, including a bicycle from 1869 owned by Wesley Redhead, one of the first ridden in the state. The exhibition also highlights RAGBRAI© as an iconic Iowa tradition and one of our largest cultural events. Tens of thousands of Iowans are connected to this topic through their participation as a RAGBRAI rider, resident of a town on the RAGBRAI route or simply being a cyclist who enjoys Iowa’s trails.
Saving Our Stuff
Featuring nearly 100 artifacts selected from the State Historical Museum’s climate-controlled collections storage facility, this 2,300-square-foot exhibition showcases a wide variety of objects from the museum’s permanent collection—papers, metals/silver, clay pottery/stoneware, natural history specimens, wood furniture and more—in various stages of conservation treatment. Visitors can learn the differences between “restoration” and “stabilization,” and discover why some artifacts are best left untouched, including the pot used to make “Big Daddy’s” barbecue sauce.
A Service to Silver: Tribute to the USS Iowa
This stunning 40-piece silver service was presented by Iowa to the U.S. Navy in 1896 for the then newly-commissioned USS Iowa battleship.
You Gotta Know the Territory
This sprawling exhibit offers a comprehensive view of Iowa’s early years before statehood was granted in 1846. Explore how native Iowa cultures lived—their tools, housing, farming and recreation. When the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty of 1832 opened the Territory of Iowa for settlement, thousands of settlers poured in to take advantage of Iowa’s abundant resources. See how this immigration affected Native Americans and learn about the immigrant experience—the perils of traveling to Iowa, farming, and town life. Examine the relationship between traders, Native Americans and the US Government. Push a plow, see a Conestoga wagon and watch a video that narrates the experiences of three immigrants traveling west to Iowa.
Hollywood in the Heartland
Discover Iowa’s legacy with the silver screen throughout history, leading up to our most recent contributions to American film. See how our great Midwestern state and its residents have been portrayed on-screen, uncover the beauty of our historic theaters and their role in Iowa communities, and meet the people who have made an impression on-screen and behind the scenes. Learn more.
Curator’s Choice: The Art of Model Making
Model building is a popular pastime for many people. See some rare and extraordinary examples of models including ships, buildings and steam-powered engines.
Dr. Norman E. Borlaug
Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, native of Cresco, IA, is one of only three Americans ever to receive the trifecta of humanitarian awards, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the only American to hold those honors and also the National Medal of Science. To celebrate his life’s work and impact on global hunger during the 100-year anniversary of his birth, the State of Iowa commissioned a seven-foot bronze statue of Dr. Borlaug which was donated to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on March 25, 2014. A three-foot replica of the statue and information about Dr. Borlaug is on display on the third floor of the Museum.