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Officials say exhibits will attract more students to Pentacrest museums

BY NICK HASSETT | SEPTEMBER 14, 2012 6:30 AM

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It’s easy to wander into the University of Iowa’s two museums on the Pentacrest.

The Old Capitol Museum situated in the middle of the Pentacrest seems to always have students sitting outside it, leaning on its grand pillars or engrossed in a book while lounging on the steps. And the Museum of Natural History in Macbride Hall is nestled directly in the center of the building, perhaps leaving some confused students looking for the lecture hall instead of history exhibits.

Wandering into the museums is one thing, but staying inside to browse is quite another. Some students say they haven’t been inside the museums at all.

The Daily Iowan surveyed several UI students and found that none of them had been to the museums first by choice. And while students say university officials could do a better job of advertising the Pentacrest museums, museum officials say they don’t have any changes to their marketing strategies. Rather, they hope new exhibits will attract students.

The museums have used several methods to get the word out about their existence.

“We’ve been using Facebook, there are signs out front advertising our free admission, there are lots of events we put on, and Orientation groups come here over the summer,” said UI senior Courtney Richenbacher, a guide at the Old Capitol Museum.

The Museum of Natural History was established in 1858, and the Old Capitol Museum opened in 1976.

UI junior Jacob Olsgaard said he went into the Museum of Natural History for a class but hasn’t visited both.

“I kind of felt it was outdated, but it was educational,” he said. “I want to go into the Old Capitol Museum, but I haven’t yet.”

Songtao Wan, a first-year student at the university, said he hasn’t been in either of the museums.

“I might go in there at some time,” he said, referring to the Old Capitol Museum. “Maybe to see the Civil War exhibit.”

It’s through exhibits such as these that museum officials hope to bring in students and community members alike, and although at times the museums may look empty, there are still plenty of visitors. According to estimates from museum officials, a combined 80,000 people visited the Old Capitol and Natural History Museums last year.

As far as daily and weekly numbers go, officials say it varies a lot.

“We have no typical weeks,” said Shalla Ashworth, the associate director of the Old Capitol museum, and laughed.

Richenbacher said the museum attendance fluctuates daily.

“Sometimes we’ll get 20 to 25 students a day, sometimes it’s 60 to 65,” she said. “We’d always like to see more people. People not knowing [the museums] are here negatively affects us.”

The Old Capitol Museum has permanent exhibits on display, mostly composed of artifacts from the building itself. But the museum has announced several new exhibits for the upcoming year, the Civil War exhibit included. An exhibit highlighting Napoleonic era art and an exhibit on the War of 1812 to coincide with the 200th anniversary are planned.

Ashworth said that these new exhibits are worth the price.

“They’re very minimal in cost compared to what the university community gets out of these exhibits,” she said.

In addition, Ashworth said the museums are mostly self-sufficient.

“We get a small amount from the general-education fund, but the rest comes through endowments and sales through our gift shops, programs, birthday parties, etc.,” she said.

Exhibits aren’t the only services the museum provides.

“What we are doing encompasses exhibits, support for research, support for instruction at the university, a lot of community and public outreach, and more,” said Trina Roberts, the associate director of the Museum of Natural History.

Several classes require students to go into the museums. UI seniors Ben Byriel and Sarah Shires said they had to go into the Museum of Natural History for a biology class. Both said they think the museum should advertise more.

“The displays were great, very lifelike, but most people don’t know it’s there,” Byriel said.

Ultimately, officials believe the museums are beneficial to the university, even if the museums aren’t visited as often as they’d like.

“The museums are an excellent asset to the university community for research and outside-the-box kind of education, but we also expand out to schools, the local community, and our state,” Ashworth said. “And as we do that, we are always the face of the university. Our staff realizes that they are representing the museums, and they’re representing the University of Iowa.”


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