Iowa Through The Ages – State Historical Museum of Iowa

A visit to Des Moines, Iowa wouldn’t be complete without checking out the State Historical Museum of Iowa in the East Village. This place is dedicated to telling the story of the people who have inhabited the territory for as long as the history is known. It was a short walk from our hotel to the museum and a beautiful day to take in a few of the sights. Upon entering the building, we were greeted by the skeleton of a mammoth. A similar species was discovered nearby during excavation for a building. It is a little surreal to imagine that the ground you are standing on was once the wandering place for these ancient animals.

Early airplanes are visible in the lobby of the State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines.

Heads Up

The open atrium lobby offers a chance to view the three aircraft that are displayed. All of these are from the period just after the start of the twentieth century. The oldest of which was commonly used as a “trainer” plane for new pilots in the early 1900’s. Be sure to climb the steps to the second floor landing for a better view.

The start of the Iowa History galleries helps educate visitors on the early lifestyles of the state's residents.

Regional History

Like every good state museum, the Iowa version focuses a lot of attention on the people and stories associated with the growth of the region. In this area we discovered many pieces specific to Iowans who are known around the world for their accomplishments. Pieces of clothing that have been used to climb Mount Everest or travel into space can be found in this gallery. We are sure that many of the stories are familiar to the people of the state, but it is a great way for travelers to quickly learn more about the background of some of Iowa’s celebrities.

A large portion of the museum is dedicated to the native American Indians who first occupied the lands.

The Early Days

A visit to the “You Gotta Know The Territory” gallery showcases the indigenous people of the land. Here we learned about the Wiki-up, which is the bark covered lodgings that they used. A nice collection of artifacts helped guide us through the discovery of the traditions of these early inhabitants.

Display cases hold artifacts associated with Native American tribes.

The State Historical Museum of Iowa has separated this gallery into multiple sections, so we spent a considerable amount of time here. Large display cases hold various pieces of apparel, jewelry, and trade goods that would have been commonly found in the villages. A few examples of the native species is also among the collections.

Moving through the museum takes you forward in time to when pioneers first began entering the territory.

Settlers Arrive

As we progressed through time, we came to the point that settlers first began arriving to stay in the area. A Conestoga wagon stands as a stark reminder of how people traveled during that period. It is hard to imagine packing up your entire life’s worth of belongings in one of these (Be sure to leave room for the family!) and then move across the country. Pioneers discovered the fertile lands were perfect for crops and soon Iowa became an agricultural center in the expanding nation.

The Civil War required a huge number of Iowa civilians to become soldiers.

The War Between The States

During the Civil War, Iowa saw around 76,000 of its residents fight in the battles and skirmishes. The State Historical Museum has dedicated a good size space to showing life before, during, and after the conflict. There are informational exhibits that detail how the pioneers of those days were turned into proficient soldiers. Some of our favorite pieces describe how some of these soldiers felt during this period and their beliefs focused around the war in general. It was quite enlightening.

Part of the Civil War displays focuses on the leisure time that soldiers had between battles and training.

A nice touch in the gallery is the description of and displays associated with the recreational time between the battles. Here we gained a better understanding of how the soldiers passed the time when not on the march or fighting. It made us stop and think about all of the free time they would have had, and how they would want have wanted to fill it with activity to take their minds off of the brutality that they would have witnessed during battle.

The pearl button industry was a large commercial piece of business in Iowa after the Civil War.

A Delicate Balance

Like many of the states in the heartland, Iowa has seen its own challenges in regards to how to harvest the bounties of the land. We never realized that the region was once a major hub for the production of pearl buttons. This large scale industry ran strong for many years, before suffering extensive setbacks due to over harvesting and changes in the fashion industry.

Coal mining employed a large number of Iowans for a few decades.

Coal mining was another industry that required people to disturb the natural landscape. Many people worked the mines in the late 1800’s through the first couple decades of the 1900’s. By the 1920’s the mining industry has subsided for the most part, as Iowans sought out alternate fuel sources. One of the main concerns, and killers to this industry, was that Iowa coal had a higher sulfur content that other regions of the country. The last Iowa coal mine shuttered in 1994, and the industry is now just a memory in the state’s history.

Iowa has been the focus on multiple Hollywood films over the years.

You Ought To Be In Pictures

One of our favorite galleries at the State Historical Museum of Iowa centered around the movie industry. Most Americans are familiar with The Music Man, which is centered around the ideals of a Midwestern town and its values. A couple other notable films were Field of Dreams and Bridges of Madison County. Both of these help propel Iowa into the limelight and vastly increase tourism.

The movie gallery includes an homage to the drive-in theaters that were popular in the mid-twentieth century.

Sitting in the center of the gallery is a small display focused on drive-in movies. We can both remember the hey-days of this industry and miss the Friday nights spent sitting in the car watching first run flicks. There is something to be said for the nostalgia of this era, which can’t be truly replicated with a visit to the big house movie theaters. Those were certainly some memorable moments.

Bicycling has become a popular pastime in Iowa.

An Unexpected Collection

We have had the opportunity to visit many museums during our travels. While each has its own unique spin on the local and regional history, most have common themes that come to be expected. Once in a while there will be a display that takes us on a turn that we didn’t see coming. Such was the case at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, when we came upon the “Riding Through History” gallery. It started with a couple of guys wanting to showcase their six-day ride across Iowa in 1973. They invited local, regional, and national newspapers to follow along and ended up with about 300 riders in total.

A display focusing on the annual seven-day bike ride across Iowa contains many artifacts and pieces of memorabilia.

This had led to the creation of a seven-day event that draws upwards of 10,000 riders annually to explore the varied landscapes across the state. The event has blossomed into an almost carnival atmosphere with foods and entertainment along the route. The displays at the museum took us on a day-by-day exploration of the event and showcased some of the bikes, team jerseys, and memorabilia collected from previous events. It was certainly an unexpected and pleasant surprise to find in the museum. Of course, we found many more displays inside, but our goal is to pique your interest to make your own trip to the State Historical Museum of Iowa. It’s a great way to learn about the people of the state, so make it one of your first stops during your stay in Des Moines.

the authors signatures.

16 thoughts on “Iowa Through The Ages – State Historical Museum of Iowa”

  1. Charles McCool (McCool Travel)

    Nice tip about climbing to the second floor to get a better view of the exhibits. This looks like a worthwhile history museum.

  2. I love museums like this that provide such a broad history of the people of a place.It will definitely be on my list of things to do in Des Moines.

  3. Suzanne Fluhr

    I usually make it a point to visit a history museum if one is available wherever we travel. I realize, I don’t even know which side Iowans fought on during the Civil War. I’m afraid that apart from a visit to friends in Iowa City, my time in Iowa has been spent driving through it to and from California in 1968. (Well, my father drove. I was only 14).

  4. Doreen Pendgracs

    In haven’t been to Iowa in a very long time. Knowing there are fascinating attractions like this museum make me want to plan a return visit.

  5. Iowa is one of only a few states that I haven’t visited, but plan to in the near future. Looks like there’s lots of interesting exhibits in that museum!

  6. It was good to see some of the items that were in the old historical building. The covered wagon was one of my favorite as a child.

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