Kaercher: Located right along the Mississippi River, for many years, Davenport was at the crossroads of the country, people going north and south on the Mississippi and crossing the mighty river to travel west into the interior.
Today Davenport calls itself Iowa’s front porch. And what a front porch it is, a blending of old and new that is continually being restored and reinvigorated.
One structure that greets you in a grand manner from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi is the Putnam Museum of History and Natural Science, whose 2002 IMAX theater glows against the surrounding hills.
The Putnam itself dates back to 1867, when it was called the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences. New facilities were built in the 1960s and 90s. In 1974, the museum was named for the family who had supported it during its early years, the Putnams.
Today the Putnam describes itself as providing “entertainment for your mind.” It’s a very apt description. On November 9, the museum opened a traveling exhibit about Leonardo Da Vinci. As the exhibit was being set up, we previewed it with Kim Findlay, president and CEO of the Putnam.
Da Vinci, who lived 500 years ago, is perhaps best known for the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. But he was also an engineer, scientist, sculptor, architect, weapon designer and more, the real life Renaissance man. His drawings and theories foresaw many things we take for granted today. From myriad mechanisms for lifting things. To a whole range of flying machines... to a robot, who does look rather medieval, and much more. A few explanations are in order.
First, not only are there models of his designs with descriptions, but a computer simulation that shows how the mechanisms work and even provides the mathematics behind the physics.
Second, the models are made from Da Vinci’s drawings, but he didn’t make the models. For many of them, the necessary materials didn’t exist 500 years ago, like this underwater breathing device.
The original ball-bearing device. Okay. How ingenious. They don't touch each other. They're just going around and around.
Findlay: He just had such an active, inquisitive, curious mind, and he didn't allow the boundaries of time to stop him from exploring.
Kaercher: And that's the broader message and inspiration of the whole exhibit. Go ahead and try it.
The Da Vinci exhibit is here until February 23, 2008. But there are permanent exhibits that are always here. For example, there’s the hall of mammals featuring African and Alaskan animals. There’s Black Earth/Big River which takes you through some outdoor environments, and the river, prairie and people exhibit. This traces the history of the area from the Native Americans to early settlers, to the steamboat days, to Bix Biederbecke, to the last decades of the 20th century. And last but certainly not least, there’s the Egyptian gallery, one of the most popular permanent exhibits. The Putnam has two mummies, one wrapped, and one unwrapped.
Kastell: I think people are just intrigued with ancient Egypt, the mystery and the beauty of it. I think the culture is so different from modern American culture.
Kaercher: As I looked at the map of ancient Egypt, I began to see another connection between Davenport and the Egypt of the pharaohs. Egypt’s civilization grew around a mighty river that shaped people’s lives. Davenport took root on the bank of a different river, and it too has been shaped by the rhythms of its river.
Johnson Boyle: Dan joins us now in the studio. Dan, the Putnam Museum looks fabulous.
Kaercher: It is, both as an architectural statement and then all these wonderful exhibits. You know, this weekend, if you don’t want to drag the kids or the grandkids kicking or screaming on a shopping expedition, the Putnam is a great place to visit in eastern Iowa. And if you do want to shop, they have a wonderful, large gift shop right in the Putnam. You know, I wanted to mention that the two mummies we saw earlier this fall got an ambulance ride at for CAT scans at a Quad Cities hospital. They were trying to determine such things as what period of history them came from, what age were they when they died, what gender. But, isn’t that fun?
Johnson Boyle: That’s fun. What else is going on around Iowa this week.
Kaercher: Well, there’s so much going on around Iowa this week, but one thing we wanted to highlight in particular, at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum in Fort Dodge, there’s a very unique exhibit. An artist by the name of Kate Jaylins, who is an American Native, has an exhibit called “American beast.” and what she’s done, a very neat concept, is taken noteworthy Americans from different periods in our history and translated them into really powerful paintings of American animals. For example, there’s an abolitionist depicted as a beautiful painting of a horse. You just kind of have to see it to get it. But that’s running through February 16 at the Blanden Museum in Fort Dodge.
Johnson Boyle: That sounds very intriguing, certainly a visual that’s sticking in my mind. As always, what’s your mantra? What do you want to tell us?
Kaercher: Well, I always want to remind people to call ahead before you go. And for more ideas about what’s going on at the Putnam Museum in Davenport, the Blanden in Fort Dodge, or all over the state of Iowa, iptv.org/iowajournal.
Johnson Boyle: Well, as always, thank you, Dan. You give us lots of good things to do in Iowa, especially this time of year, which is fun to get out and about.