George Schrimper, 64BS, 65MA, can look back over a distinguished 34-year career at the University of Iowa that transformed the UI Museum of Natural History from an antiquated exhibit hall into an engaging and relevant resource for students and the public.
After graduating from the UI with a bachelor's degree in general science (1964) and a master's in museum studies (1965), Schrimper joined the Iowa faculty in 1966. At that time, the Museum of Natural History was on the verge of closure. Opened in 1858, the exhibit hall was the second oldest natural history museum west of the Mississippi River, but it had fallen into an alarming state of disrepair. Faced with a fast-growing university, some administrators considered putting the museum's space to other use. An outcry from UI faculty, alumni, and Iowa schoolchildren spared the facility, and Schrimper was hired as a UI faculty instructor and assistant curator to revamp the museum.
He wasted no time redesigning outdated exhibits to make them useful to undergraduate natural science classes and interesting to the general public. Schrimper demonstrated a particular talent for taking scientific objects and transforming them into art forms compelling in both accuracy and beauty.
By 1971, Schrimper had been promoted to curator of the museum (a title later changed to director) and an assistant professor of museum studies. With a very limited budget and staff, he put forth a herculean effort to advance the quality of the facility. In addition to renovating exhibits, he worked tirelessly to raise funds to add new space and attractions.
In 1985, Schrimper and his faculty and staff colleagues unveiled Iowa Hall, the centerpiece gallery, which takes visitors on a 500-million-year adventure through the state's geological, cultural, and ecological history. Later, Schrimper spearheaded major renovations of the museum's Mammal Hall and the William and Eleanor Hageboeck Hall of Birds, which became the largest public display of birds west of Chicago. Featuring more than 1,000 specimens, the hall includes interactive, modern, multi-sensory exhibits that allow visitors to hear recorded bird songs and see how a wing moves in flight.
Schrimper was also responsible for the expansion of educational programs that bring in schoolchildren from all over the state. The museum often ignites elementary school students' passion for the natural sciences and offers them their first glimpse of the Iowa campus. In addition, several thousand university students use the collections each semester, studying everything from the geosciences and biology to art, history, and writing.
Overall, the museum attracts about 50,000 people annually to see some of the finest objects in the UI's irreplaceable collections and to learn about Iowa's history and the environmental impacts of humans on the natural world. Without Schrimper's leadership, the museum may not exist—and it certainly would not have undergone $2.25 million in improvements.
Whether in grade school, grad school, or beyond, visitors to the UI campus—and the Museum of Natural History in particular—benefit from George Schrimper's vision and determination to tell the story of Iowa.