Iowa on the Move: RV To bring State History to 99 Counties in Iowa


Iowa on the Move

It takes some serious packing skills — or a mighty big shoehorn — to squeeze 300 years of Iowa history into an RV.

That’s exactly what staffers at the Iowa State Historical Society have done, filling a custom-built Winnebago RV with a multi-media and artifact-based exhibit that tells about Iowa’s past in 300 square feet.

Iowa became the 29th state in the Union on Dec. 28, 1846, and the historical society is celebrating the 170th birthday with a series of “Iowa History 101” exhibits. At the State Historical Museum, visitors can explore grandma’s attic in “Museum Gallery,” with dozens of stories and artifacts such as a flight suit worn by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, and participate in interactive exhibits in “Hands on History.”

The third is “History on the Move,” an RV that hits the road this spring with a goal of visiting all 99 counties in the next three years.

“The State Historical Society serves the whole state, and we take that very seriously. Some people may never get to Des Moines to visit the museum, so the RV is a fun way for people in different parts of the state to connect with history,” says Leo Landis, state museum curator.

“American Pickers” creator and star Mike Wolfe is an exhibit partner, along with EMC Insurance Companies. Wolfe has provided the voice and video talent for multi-media components.

With about 100,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection, the task of repackaging Iowa’s history into a succinct display and recount it in an engaging way was “daunting,” says Museum Exhibits Manager Andrew Harrington.

“You can’t tell every Iowa story, even if you had a 10,000-square-foot exhibit. I feel like we did a good job of saying — in as few words as possible — what we wanted to say and finding objects that could tell those stories. We want people to become inspired and want to learn more on their own,” Harrington explains.

Organizers settled on themes of home, work and play. Wolfe narrates an overview of the exhibit and offers interesting insights into Iowa history as preparation for viewing the RV displays.

 “Iowa’s state motto is ‘Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain.’ That dates back to 1847, and that was a promise to Iowa’s citizens. Historically, settlers came to Iowa because they thought they could make a better life for themselves, and we wanted to explore that and how it relates to current-day Iowans while making the most of the space we had in the RV,” Landis says.

Waterloo’s Rath Packing Co. is represented in the work portion of the exhibit, along with farming and farm-related machinery and technology, including the development of the first digital computer by Iowan John Vincent Atanasoff.

“We wanted to remind people that we not only collect history but objects and stories from Iowa’s recent past,” Landis says.

Homemaking also is included, represented by cooking utensils like an early cast iron skillet, a Hmong spinning wheel and Meskwaki textiles. Play features toys and other items representing a vision of universal childhood.

Organizers use photographic displays, touch screens and other multi-media devices to tell stories that are mindful “of a broad representation of all parts of the state and its residents, including Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian immigrants and Latinos,” Landis explains.

The Winnebago-built RV has a commercial shell that looks like the standard 38-foot vehicle, but it’s empty inside except for floor and walls. The State Historical Society has worked with 1220 Exhibits to outfit the RV. The Nashville-based company specializes in developing, producing and installing exhibits. “They do exhibit work all over the country — exhibit case work and graphics that will hold up over time with all the foot traffic, and things we can’t build ourselves,” Harrington explains.

The RV may show up at the Iowa State Fair and other larger festivals and fairs across the state to maximize exposure. “We’re receiving requests from counties, but we haven’t nailed down a schedule just yet. We have to work out the logistics to see what makes the best sense of getting around the state,” he says.

In addition, history buffs can download the Iowa Culture mobile app, a fun and interactive way to discover arts, history and cultural destinations in the state.

For more information on scheduling a stop by the RV, call (515) 281-5111 or go to

Credit: Melody Parker from The WCF Courier