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Coe Museums

The Museum of Natural History and the Bert Bailey Museum


In April of 1892 the Cosmos rejoiced to report that a life like bust of Abraham Lincoln had recently been donated to the Coe College museum, which was located on the third story of the main building (I think.). Mr. Parvin also gave the addition of a rare collection of nearly a hundred shells to the museum in the spring of 1897. Each shell was in its own individual box and clearly labeled. The museum was growing and thanks to generous donations such as these, providing students with a new means of research and study.


Gifts of unusual and rare specimens continued to pour in to the museum. The October 1903 Courier listed the following as recent additions from various sources: a sawfish, Indian skulls, petrified wood, human bones, a Virginia deer, an osprey, bird eggs, and star fish. All of these specimens were the responsibility of Dr. Bailey of the Zoology department, a ’97 Coe graduate and professor of biology from 1900 – 1917.  In the summer of 1904 he and Prof. Stookey of the Geology department collected a series of fossils from the Trenton limestone at Postville, Iowa, and made additions to the collection of bird skins, which proved quite interesting as the feathers were now in their summer plumage. Nearly two hundred plants were collected as well, and added to the Herbarium. Bailey also traveled to British Honduras in 1905 where, according to Stookey, he returned with “the third largest collection of birds from that region in this country.”


Students contributed to the museum as well. The class of 1906 donated a stuffed American Bison as a class gift. Members of the class of 1907 had the same idea, and Mr. G.H. Berry collected specimens from Honduras for the class, such as beetles, reptiles and rare birds. One particularly interesting display was of three King Vultures feeding on a dead crocodile that had washed up on the Caribbean Sea shore. 


According to the August 1908 Courier, the Coe museum was doing very well in comparision to other college museums, but students and Cedar Rapids citizens were not taking full advantage of it. The College began looking for ways to encourage students to use the museum in association with their studies. The museum had also outgrew its quarters in Old Main and was looking forward to the day when adequate museum rooms could be used as well as an endowment for the annual purchase of new collections and material to properly mount and display collections.


When Carnegie Science Hall was completed in the winter of 1910, the museum moved to the fourth floor. The exhibit space in this new building was more than double the old space and the capacity of the exhibit halls was more than three times larger. The January 1910 courier reported that “there are no finer exhibit rooms in the state” and the display cases were of the “most modern type”. A special room was now available for taxidermy and ornithology students were encouraged to use the study room, which was equipped with a study series of bird skins. 


With the sudden death of Dr. Bailey in June of 1917, Miss Clementina Spencer, who had been filling in for Bailey while he pursued his graduate work, became assistant professor and acting chair of the Zoology department. The Museum was named the B.H. Bailey Museum in October of 1917 in honor of his years of service and dedication to the museum. All of Bailey’s plans for expansion of the museum were now to be carried out by Miss Spencer. After a through cleaning of the animals and cases, the Carnegie Science Hall was fumigated and closed for a full day. Bailey had directed the preparation of habitat groups for some Iowa birds and had planned to do the same with Iowa mammals. The animals had been collected, and Miss Spencer worked with various professors at State universities to complete the project.


There were three animal groups total: the first being a group of beaver specimens with the appropriate setting of water, rocks and underbrush. With permission from the class of 1906, the second group, two mountain lions and three cubs, was obtained in exchange for their class gift of the stuffed American bison. The third was three black bears which were to be placed in a large case in the center of the west end of the museum, while the other two were placed in the corner cases of the east room. 


Not only did the B.H. Bailey museum contain rare specimens of over 200 birds, and hundreds of butterflies and beetles from north, central and south America, but also a collection of curious relics from the orient. These included weapons, idols, musical instruments, models of furniture and instruments of torture, all gathered in oriental countries from Coe alumni, missionaries, or professors in travel. Although these relics were crowded into a small space, they provided “a realistic idea of the land and peoples across the sea,” (Cosmos October 23 1917). 


Improvements needed to be made. In the December 13, 1918 issue of the Cosmos, the museum was listed as one of many structures in need of financial aid and repair. The collection, which was referred to as “priceless,” was difficult to access because it did not meet fire regulations.


Specimens continued to be donated, despite the small space and lack of proper display equipment. In November of 1924, Dr. McDaniel ’97, who had been a personal friend of Dr. Bailey, mailed shipments of stuffed birds and animals from Siam and China


In May of 1926 four cases of moths and butterflies were taken from the museum and placed in cases in the third floor hall in the Science building. Although the May 13, 1926 Cosmos described the collection as “the most attractive,” it may have been moved due to space constraints on the fourth floor, where the rest of the museum collection was held.


The 1932 – 1933 catalogue explained that the west hall of the top floor in the Science hall was dedicated to vertebrates and at the east end was the hall of invertebrates, geology and botany, with classified ethnological exhibits. In 1948 the west hall collection provided accommodation for visual education classes, which included projection equipment for both silent and sound moving pictures, as well as slide projectors. The room was also acoustically treated and new lighting was installed. These additions may have occurred to entice students and classes to use the museum facilities. 

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