Thursday, December 15, 2016

Iowa State History Museum

Iowa State History Museum

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The sheer size of the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines impressed us.  One building holds the state archives, while the other holds one of the most complete and interesting state history museums we have visited. Built in 1987, it was ahead of its time with a modern design including a large reception area lit by skylights. There is talk of reducing the size of the 234,000-square-foot museum, as well as replacing one wall and stopping the skylights from leaking when it rains.

The Iowa State History Museum is the largest we have visited.

There’s a variety of displays on the three floors, some of which is expected in a state museum, such as a mastodon, relics from the American Indians who originally inhabited the area, Civil War weapons and artifacts and an excellent collection of items used by early white settlers in Iowa.

What was more unexpected were the exhibits you don’t typically see at state museums: Hollywood in the Heartland, Riding Through History, Saving Our Stuff and one exhibit featuring a reproduction of a coal mine.

Hollywood in the Heartland featured a series of cases showcasing actors who came from Iowa but most of the space is devoted to investigating and showing the influence of some major films made about Iowa that reflect well on the state. Each section includes seats, a large screen showing excerpts of the movies along with comments and a sound system that restricts the sound only to the seating area. The films highlighted during our visit were “State Fair,” “Bridges of Madison County,” “Music Man” and “Field of Dreams.”

We stepped into a 3,000-square-foot area with a variety of old, new and classic bicycles. As it turns out, Iowans are taken with the early days of bicycle riding and claim to be the bicycle trails capital of the world. One of the races in the state, the Good Life Gravel Gran Fondo, includes a 340-mile contest over gravel and dirt roads that must be finished in 34 hours, and the route is kept as a surprise to the riders. Part of the exhibit includes a film about that race and the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

In the Saving Our Stuff exhibit, a collection of material damaged by water from floods, mold, time and other factors were on display, and a film was shown depicting people working to restore various damaged objects. We watched as an artist restored a painting that had been damaged in a flood, and in one display, received instructions about how to prepare a wedding dress for storage so it would not suffer the consequences of time.

Turning to an exhibit exploring the balance between using the state’s resources and preserving them, a darkened area gave us the feel of being in a coal mine as two mannequins stood in as workers bent over in tight conditions. A film also was shown about how coal mining in Iowa had been a major source of soft coal. The film, which was made when mines still existed in the state, talk about both the danger and the special pleasure that comes from being a miner.

Given the dangers and health hazards of the job, the idea of job satisfaction was a bit difficult for us to understand.

Another amenity of the museum is a small but pleasant restaurant on the third floor with both indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the Des Moines skyline.

An Iowa State History Museum mastodon

Iowa claims to be the bicycle trails capital of the world.

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