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Museum Exhibits

Atrium Exhibits

Mammoth: Witness to Change

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.

USS Iowa Interpretive Panels

Sticks founder and lead designer, Sarah Grant, worked with historians from the USS Iowa to create 10 hand-painted murals based on historic photos and documented naval history. The result is an artistic and educational display about the history of the USS Iowa. The visual storytelling found in the vividly rendered original works brings to life every rope, anchor, nut and bolt aboard ship. After their display at the State Historical Museum, the 10 panels will make their permanent home aboard the USS Iowa, completing the educational museum portion of the ship.

Wings Over Iowa

Three vintage aircraft are suspended from the ceiling of the Museum’s atrium:

  1. Bleriot XI Monoplane (ca. 1909) – This Bleriot model was the first of Louis Bleriot’s aircraft designs to be fully successful. He proved the success of the machine by becoming the first person to cross the English Channel in an airplane 17 years before Lindbergh’s famous flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Following this success, Bleriot’s monoplanes sold well and many flying schools adopted them as standard trainers. Evert “Hud” Weeks restored this Bleriot XI to flyable condition in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
  2. Curtiss Pusher Biplane (ca. 1911) – This Curtiss Pusher was built from a kit by brothers Arthur and Ben Klein in Treynor, Iowa. The brothers flew the plane from 1911 to 1915, but due to frequent mechanical problems the plane was disassembled, stored and then rediscovered in the 1960s.
  3. Benoist Tractor Biplane (ca. 1917 – dates vary in different sources). This red and white aircraft was built and flown by Lt. Oscar Solbrig, known as the Davenport Bird Man, and restored by Louis Anderson. It was formerly displayed at the old city museum of Davenport until 1962 when the building was torn down.

Atrium Exhibit Cases

East Side of Atrium

Recent Acquisitions

The display features a selection of recent acquisitions to the collections of the State Historical Museum. Among the highlights are Gregory Lion and Catrina Crocodile, two of the puppets from the WOI-TV program The House with the Magic Window, 1920s women’s fashion accessories from Black Hawk County and a 1979 Des Moines Technical High School Band jacket and hat.

Heritage Classrooms Hallway

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.

First Floor Exhibit Galleries

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).

Second Floor Landing

99 Counties of Iowa

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.

Second Floor Exhibit Galleries

Hollywood in the Heartland

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.

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.

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.


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