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