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University of Iowa News Release


Dec. 1, 2006

Old Capitol Museum Exhibit Enlivens 1800s Diaries By Young Iowans

The Old Capitol Museum has collaborated with the University of Iowa Libraries, State Historical Society of Iowa, and other libraries across Iowa to create the Iowa Youth Diaries Project, which showcases exceptional collections of young Iowans' diaries from the 1850s to early 1900s. The goal of the Diaries Project is to make these entertaining, fragile, and rare primary documents accessible to the public, particularly to students studying and visitors interested in state history.

The Diaries Project exhibit, which will be part of the museum's permanent display, will open Saturday, Dec 9. An opening event will be held from noon to 4 p.m. in the Old Capitol Museum's ground floor Discovery Center. The museum will be filled with activities including 1800s parlor games, quill pen and ink projects, an Old Capitol treasure hunt with prizes, and winter treats to celebrate the opening. This family oriented event is free to all.

The exhibit divides the 19th century writings into specific themes that align with Iowa state history education requirements and the project's goal of uncovering youth experiences in Iowa. Topics address Native Americans in Iowa, pioneers on the prairie, agriculture and rural life, Civil War and 19th Century politics, developments in technology and transportation, urbanization, daily routine (from homework to chores), 1800s entertainment, games, and activities.

The Diaries Project also links the 1800s diaries to modern-day Iowa students, thanks to a $5,000 Year of Public Engagement Grant in 2005 from the Office of the UI President. Nine fourth-through-sixth-grade classes in the Grand Wood Area Education Agency participated in the project. Students were asked to compose a one- to two-page essay on their lives today. Their essays are displayed in the museum's ground-floor Discovery Center. When students arrived at Old Capitol, they heard stories from 1800s youth diaries and engaged in discussions about the similarities and differences between their own reflections and those of past young Iowans.

The success of these activities propelled the Diaries Project's expansion. This summer, UI students and Elisa Ewing, education and outreach coordinator for the Old Capitol Museum, digitized 11 of the archived diaries and created dynamic history lessons filled with images, virtual author biographies, and diary synopses, around their stories. The Diaries Project will now include two new interactive computer presentations that bring these journals to life.

The UI students and Old Capitol Museum staff created the content for the exhibit. The interactive computer programs were developed and designed by Applied Art and Technology, a Des Moines multimedia firm. The exhibit furnishings and graphic panels were created by Presentations, a Cedar Rapids graphic design firm. The two high-tech computers and screens, development of the interactive program, building of the computer stations and design of graphic panels cost nearly $100,000.

A $28,500 grant partially supported this project through funding from the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) Act through a Historical Resource Development Program (HDRP) grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa.

Through the interactive computer presentations, visitors can travel with a young Iowa soldier as he prepares for a Civil War battle, experience the culture of a Meskwaki girl in the mid-1800s, discover school as a teenager in 1880s Iowa, and more. With the addition of the interactive computers, teachers can tailor their Diaries Project visits to match current lesson plans or meet curriculum objectives. They can elect specific theme or group of themes to discuss, or engage in a general exploration of all.

"This exhibit blends archive access, technology, and Iowa history in an inventive, engaging way. We've yet to see one like it in American heritage museums," Ewing said.

Excerpts from the 1800s diaries show life was quite different for children then, but with a few similarities. This diary entry from Mary Griffith, a young girl growing up in western Iowa, shows the concerns about disease sweeping her town, but also shows the timeless displeasure of doing laundry.

"April 29, 1880: Very windy. The scarlet fever casts a gloom over the whole City. Three funerals this afternoon. Mrs. Davis and another one of the children were buried. That makes four out of that family in five days. There was a proclamation issued this morning, for parents to keep their children in, till the epidemic is past. Went over to see Grandma. We commenced washing about 4 p.m. Got the clothes dried and folded about nine. Tired is not a name for me. I don't want to wash in the evening soon again. While I was hanging some pieces up, the whole business come down."

She passed away from scarlet fever one year after her diary was written.

The museum staff sees the Diaries Project as a focus their educational efforts to enrich and enhance the schools teaching of Iowa History, and to make the Old Capitol Museum come alive with student visitors. "Regardless of the type of tour taken, students will hopefully leave with a heightened understanding of Iowa's heritage, motivated by their own personal thoughts, experiences, and cultural surroundings of their peers from the past," Ewing said.

The Old Capitol Museum will launch a new educational program featuring the Diaries Project and a tour of Old Capitol next spring with the Iowa City elementary schools. The Iowa City Optimist Club is donating bus funding for the program. The Diaries Project educational program will go statewide in fall 2007.

"In the future we hope to garner support through grants and gifts for additional scanning of diaries and the creation of additional programming as well as possibly adding computer stations throughout the state," said Pam Trimpe, director of the Old Capitol Museum and Museum of Natural History. "So far, the most important donation to the project has been through the time and efforts of our researchers."

Ewing spearheaded the project and led a team comprised of UI American Studies Ph.D. student Karen Smith, undergraduate history major Megan Smith, and museum studies students Amanda Colvin and Leslie Rittierodt. Old Capitol staff member Kathrine Moermond joined the team this fall. Zorana Wortham-White, a 2006 UI College of Law graduate, also worked on the project.

"This effort to involve students directly in the creation of exhibitions and programs for Old Capitol was deliberate on our part and was due to desire to fulfill the goal of former interim director Willard "Sandy" Boyd, who knew that involving students would make the museum more vibrant for all concerned," Trimpe said. "The students helped conceive the project and have actively participated phases of the research."

For more information about the Diaries Project, contact Ewing at 319-335-3591 or

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: George McCrory 319-384-0012,; Program: Elisa Ewing, Old Capitol Museum education and outreach coordinator, 319-335-3591 or