State Historical Society of Iowa Museum  

Very close to the Iowa State Capitol  is the State Historical Society of Iowa Museum.  What a mouthful! They should give it a short, catchy name that’s easy to remember and shorter to say or type.  By any name, however, the museum is a fun way to spend some time.  We visited after seeing the State Capitol building and spent the entire afternoon at the museum.

mammoth skeleton
This cast of a mammoth skeleton greets visitors to the Iowa State Historical Society Museum

The first thing we saw in the main lobby was an exhibit that includes a cast of a mammoth skeleton and other fossils, There’s a ton of information if you take the time to read the signs at the exhibits.  The lobby also features a large globe and an information desk.

Other exhibits in the museum move forward in time through Iowa’s history.  Visitors can learn about the native inhabitants of Iowa, the wildlife, and the early European settlers and the agricultural and industrial activities they brought to the state. Other exhibits tell of Iowa and the Civil War, the Great War, and Hollywood.  The Civil War exhibit is extensive, with a reproduction of an encampment, along with displays of swords, cannons and shot, and everyday items.  There is a cafe on the third floor, but we didn’t see a gift shop anywhere.

Like many family-friendly museums, the State Historical Society of Iowa Museum has a children’s area called Hands-on History, though the entire museum is very child-friendly! Hands-on History is designed with kids 10 and under in mind and has picture books and a comfortable reading area. There is also a play kitchen and a large wooden train table. An art station gives children the chance to make crayon rubbings or their own drawings and display them on the wall.

 Tour of Iowa State Capitol


building with 5 domes
Iowa’s Capitol is the only one among the United States with five domes

Visiting each state’s Capitol building as we travel has given us an appreciation for architecture and a greater understanding of the history, people, and culture of a state. Des Moines, the Iowa State Capitol, did not disappoint. Another roadschooling family came along with us for this visit.  Although we had to pass through security to enter the building, the guards were very quick to accommodate the wheelchair used by a member of the other family.  We were directed to the information desk (right below the rotunda, on the ground floor) and had just enough time to check out the gift shop and use the restroom before starting a tour.


Our guide was very knowledgeable and first we learned about the previous capitols, construction of the current building, and a devastating fire that occurred in 1904. I learned that what is now Iowa was first part of the Wisconsin Territory before becoming the Iowa Territory and eventually, the State of Iowa.

We looked at a scale model of the Battleship Iowa and learned about her proud history. The children really enjoyed the model, but my 5-year-old had to be lifted up to see it, as the display case was higher.

Our guide pointed out lots of small details in the art and architecture of the building, things we may not have noticed on our own.  She took us to the Law Library, where we were able to see a book printed by Benjamin Franklin on his hand press. 


A display unlike any we’ve seen at other capitols featured dolls representing the spouses of the governors of Iowa.  The female dolls all have the same face and wear reproductions of the gowns the first ladies wore for their husband’s inauguration.  Since Iowa now has a female governor, a doll modeled on her husband is also displayed in evening dress. It’s fun to see how formalwear has changed over the years!

Dolls representing the governors spouses
This series of dolls represents the First Ladies of Iowa in their inauguration gowns. The gentleman doll is modeled on the husband of Iowa’s first female governor.

We finished up our tour with a trip up to the “Whispering Gallery” which overlooks the rotunda. The minimum age is 6 years old, and some steep stairs are involved, with no elevator access, so some of our party remained below in the care of 16-year-old Curly. During this time, one of the state Senators came across the kids waiting for us to come down, and offered to show them the Senate floor. (We had seen both chambers from the galleries during the tour) Of course, the kids said yes! I did not get this Senator’s  name, but it was exciting for the kids to get a special tour and we really appreciated her giving them her time.

We learned so much as the Iowa State Capitol and I recommend you visit if you ever have the chance. We followed up our Capitol tour with an afternoon at the nearby State Historical Society Museum