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April 2, 2004
Volume 41, No. 9

features

Sloths and cycloramas and Sandy, oh my!
Iowa native, UI alumna to head law school
Business college curriculum emphasizes ethical issues
Out with the old, in with Outlook

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Three win new UI award for teaching excellence
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The University of Iowa

The University of Iowa

Sloths and cycloramas and Sandy, oh my!


Photo collage: dinosaur display, whale, and owl
 

It takes bustling activity in the present and serious planning for the future to get a great look at the past.

 

The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.

For more information on the museum and its exhibits, go to www.uiowa.edu/~nathist.

Even though the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History in Macbride Hall is grappling with budget cuts and operating with only one full-time staff member, two half-timers, and a few work-study students and student volunteers, it is having one of its busiest and most vibrant times.

The museum is gearing up for a fund-raising drive to pay for a new exhibit that will display the bones of a recently unearthed 10,000-year-old giant sloth. It also has planned a host of new educational programs, examined better ways to conserve museum treasures, and welcomed a familiar face to the role of interim director.

“We’ve got a lot in the works,” says museum coordinator David Brenzel. “We invite people who haven’t seen us for a while to come take another look. It’s an exciting time here.”

Ice-age attraction

The museum has been in the news lately because it soon may be home to a complete skeleton of a Megalonyx jeffersoni, or giant sloth. Staff, faculty, and volunteers from the museum, the Department of Geoscience, and the Iowa Archaeological Society have made five trips to the fossil site in southwest Iowa to recover about one-third of the once-furry, ice-age creature the size of a small elephant.

“We believe there is a complete sloth there. To find one where it died with everything that was living around it at the time is amazing. It’s unheard of for Iowa and, really, it’s extremely rare in the U.S.,” Brenzel says.

Photo: Heron  
The UI Museum of Natural History is the oldest university museum west of the Mississippi River and the second oldest museum of any kind in the West. Photos by Tom Jorgensen.  

It may take a while to unearth funding to convert museum space and add the technology to create a new, interactive sloth exhibit in Iowa Hall. In the meantime, the future attraction already is drawing curious types.

“Our cup runneth over with volunteers, with all the publicity we’ve had with the sloth,” Brenzel says, estimating that more than 30 people are on the museum’s current volunteer roster. “We have a lot of people coming in to help out with cleaning and piecing together the sloth bones and working on educational projects.”

The museum’s education coordinator, Elizabeth Burdick-Romero, is keeping them busy creating activities for visitors of all ages. A new Iowa Hall scavenger hunt features a search for two dozen gallery objects, and a learning activity basket, Welcome to Wildflowers, is available at the front desk to those interested in learning more about Iowa flora.

Fun with fossils

And “The Fossil Guy” has become one of the museum’s most popular features. Donald F. Johnson works by day as a clerk at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and as a math and physics tutor for University students. But on Saturdays, the longtime science buff and amateur paleontologist shares his extensive private collection of fossils, fossil cast replicas, and models with museum-goers.

On one Saturday in March, more than 200 visitors attended his program on raptor dinosaurs.

“The more programs we do, the more we realize that all kids want to talk about is dinosaurs,” Brenzel says. “The Fossil Guy’s a huge hit.”

Johnson has planned more Saturday programs this spring and promises to show off notable new additions to his collection.

A national treasure

Two conservation experts have been closely examining another favorite museum feature, the Laysan Island Cyclorama. Catharine Hawks of George Washington University and Joan Gorman of the Upper Midwest Conservation Association assessed the cyclorama’s condition, thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The news they relayed—that the 90-year-old exhibit depicting an island bird sanctuary northwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, needs serious restoration—was not unexpected, Brenzel says.

Dust and soot have seeped into the exhibit’s structure, roof leaks have caused water damage, and the exhibit could use some modern climate control. Restoration costs may be hefty, although conservators suggested the national grant program, Save America’s Treasures, could be a future source of funding.

In the meantime, a new sound system and reading rail enhance visitors’ experience at the classic exhibit.

Museum staff worked with the UI Audiovisual Center to create an eight-minute audiotape of birdcalls, arranged in the order of the birds’ appearance in the cyclorama.

You can listen for the “ooh-ahh ooh-ahh ooh-ahh” of the wedge-tailed shearwater, the “caw-caw” of the grey-backed tern, or the “crazed ‘eep’-ing” of the fairy tern, and read about the island and its inhabitants’ tragic story.

Conservators Hawks and Gorman heaped praise on the cyclorama, calling it an “enduring American treasure.”

Looking forward

The person helping to guide the museum into the future is no stranger to the role of University leader or museum director. Willard “Sandy” Boyd has been named the museum’s interim director. Boyd, former president of the Field Museum of Chicago, is fresh from his stint as UI interim president in 2002-03. He says he is looking forward to the challenges of his new assignment.

Boyd expects to move the museum’s focus from its more traditional look at individual species to an examination of habitats—in particular, environmental concerns and cultural diversity.

Museum staff will be working closer than ever with those doing research in these areas.

“Culture impacts environment. Environment impacts culture. They’re two of the biggest issues of our time, and we have a number of faculty and staff working in the fields,” Boyd says. “We want to connect strongly with work going on at the University and have the museum serve as a showcase for UI departments and programs engaged in environmental and cultural research.”

The museum’s biggest challenge will continue to be its budget—or lack thereof.

“We’re operating on virtually no budget. We have a space problem that’s really serious. We’re down to virtually no staff,” Boyd admits. “But the ones who are here are very committed and industrious. Working with researchers and departments throughout campus, we can accomplish a great deal.”

by Amy Schoon

 

 

 

Published by University Relations Publications. Copyright the University of Iowa 2003. All rights reserved.
   

 

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