Course utilizing museum object to sketch image of a bird.

The Giant Ice Age Sloth, a complete skeleton of a 47-foot Atlantic right whale, a diorama of the Devonian Coral Reef from 380 million years ago, and a hall of over 1,000 birds. Along with more than 130,000 objects in storage collections, these are just a few of the natural wonders found at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.


Together, the oldest university museum west of the Mississippi (Museum of Natural History) and the only National Historic Landmark in Iowa City (Old Capitol Museum) make up the University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums—places where knowledge is both generated and disseminated to UI students, instructors, and the community.


With the array of physical objects and historical documents found at the Pentacrest Museums, UI instructors have an opportunity to enhance active learning by going beyond the classroom and opening the doorways to discovery.


Director of the Pentacrest Museums Trina Roberts emphasizes the value that incorporating museum resources into a course can add for instructors and students.


“We’re surrounded by screens all the time,” Roberts says, “Looking at pictures and videos is all well and good, but students’ eyes light up when rather than seeing a picture of a 100-year-old artifact, they can actually touch the artifact in front of them.”   


Drawing class sketching from museum display.
In addition to touring an exhibit or viewing an artifact, Roberts explains how UI instructors have used the Museum collections as jumping off points in their courses.


“There really are no limits,” Roberts says, “Art instructors have had their students sketch from different exhibits, an Engineering course looked at the joints of skeletons to design ergonomic furniture; a Physics instructor attached accelerometers to the tips of Native American spears to demonstrate the advantage of levers.”


For Professor of English Eric Gidal, the museums are places where his students’ understanding and creativity flourish.


Gidal teaches courses on literature and environmental history, including Topics in Modern British Literature Before 1900, and Seminar: Romantic Literatures—Literature of the Anthropocene.


During each course, Gidal visits the Museum of Natural History with his students.


To teach Robinson Crusoe, for example, he asks his students to explore the Laysan Island Cyclorama and consider how the exhibit, like Defoe's novel, provides an immersive experience of a distant ecosystem.  


“I want my students to make connections between the literary and cultural history we read and the environmental history that is manifest in the lands and institutions we inhabit,” he says, “The Museum of Natural History is a perfect constellation of those factors.”


“We visit the museum not only for the displays on geological history and species extinction,” he says, “but also for the museum itself, a wonderful product and example of a ‘culture of exhibition’ that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Just as museums are good at getting people out of their usual environment to see the world in a different context, they also provide an equally enriching opportunity for students and instructors to explore new ways to teach and learn.

Roberts welcomes instructors to reach out to her if they have an idea or would like to brainstorm how to incorporate the Pentacrest Museums into their courses.