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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Rev. W. G. Kessler began the collections that grew into the Columbia Museum. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald.

COLUMBIA MUSEUM OF HISTORY, ART AND SCIENCE. The Columbia Museum of History, Art and Science was an unparalleled collection of art in Dubuque assembled under the direction of Archbishop Francis J. L. BECKMAN. The museum began in 1927 as a collection of Indian artifacts gathered by W. G. KESSLER, a young priest at COLUMBIA ACADEMY. (1) With the encouragement of Archbishop Beckman, the collection, named the Columbia Museum of History, Art, and Science in 1936, expanded in its first six years to occupy the lower floor of the St. Joseph's Hall. In 1936 the Columbia Museum Board of Directors and Committee on Public Relations was named. (2)

Proposed in 1937 as the new location of the museum. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

Museum officials declared in 1937 that the collection was organized on a national basis "as a national shrine to the Catholic pioneers of America." (3) Contributions were encouraged through a competitive contest with winners being given museum pins. (1)

Booklet authored by the Rev. W. G. Kessler and published by the Columbia Museum and Institute of Art.
Applied Science Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Religious Antiquity. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman
Art Division. Image courtesy: Larry Friedman

The exhibits of the museum were arranged into four general divisions. The first, Educational, had the following sections: ethnological exhibits including many Native American artifacts; relics of the various wars; relics of early American social life; and old and rare papers, letters, books and coins. The second division, Applied and Natural Sciences, had as sections: biological containing Midwestern plant and insect life; and geological with a collection of rocks, minerals and fossils. The third division, Invention, included a replica of the McCormick reaper. The fourth division, Religious Antiquity, held relics of the early Dubuque prelates and priests. The largest division was Art. This included paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Valasquez, Whistler and Van Dyck. (4)

In 1938 it was claimed that the collections were worth a minimum of $1,500,000 (equivalent in 2017 to $26,240,744.68). (5) The museum was open daily from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday evenings from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. Admission was free.

There were over 170,000 exhibits by 1940. The impact of the museum on the community was recognized in April, 1940 when the DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE announced its sponsorship of "Museum Day" for May 1st. Noting that the museum attracted thousands of visitors annually to the city, the Chamber declared the museum was "an asset to Dubuque business." Reverend Kessler, director of the museum, planned a special variety program to be held that evening in the Loras College Auditorium under the sponsorship of the Midwest Antiquarian Association. Professor Frank M. Ludewig, an authority on painting, sculpture, and architecture was chosen as the keynote speaker. There was a one-act play, vocalists, and slides showing valuable items in the museum's collection including artifacts once belonging to Haile Selassie, leader of Ethiopia; Czar Nicholas of Russia; Marie Antoinette of France; and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. The first showing of "The Meeting of the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist," by Murillo was planned. It was not announced whether samples from a new $100,000 collection of paintings purchased recently from collections in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Mexico, and New York would be shown. (6)

Image courtesy: Joseph Jacobsmeier
Image courtesy: Joseph Jacobsmeier

Financial support for the museum came through the MIDWEST ANTIQUARIAN ASSOCIATION. Among members of this group was Eleanor Roosevelt who accepted an honorary membership in May of 1937. Other groups which actively supported the museum were the Catholic Daughters of America, Catholic Women Foresters, Dubuque Antiquarian Coordinating Council, NATIONAL ANTIQUARIAN ASSOCIATION, Catholic Artists Guild and LORAS COLLEGE. (7)

The museum had three types of publications. "The Cultural Antiquarian," a quarterly magazine, featured special articles by national authorities and staff members. Other regular publications included museum catalogs and a regular series of discussion club articles. (8) The Telegraph-Herald was frequently used to feature collections. Titles such as "Early Instruments are Still in the Hands of Dubuquers"(9), "Two Humpen Glasses Shown," (10) were specialized while general articles like "Museum Information" and "Museum Notes" were regular features. "Echoes of Yesterday" was a regular feature on KDTH RADIO STATION. The broadcast by Arnold Stierman and Karl Anthony was made every Thursday afternoon at 2:15 p.m. Featured during the program were many old musical instruments including the first piano to be brought across the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. (11)

The museum promoted a service policy which included several features. The first was the supplying of study club materials to groups interested in history, art and science. Monographs on the divisions of these fields were prepared by specialists who donated their time. A lecture service on a national basis was the second feature of the museum's service plan. A series of illustrated lectures with slides showing many of the most interesting and valued exhibits of the museum was the third feature. In 1937 the fourth point, movies on cultural subjects, were being planned. The fifth point of the service plan was a series of traveling exhibits. (12)

The museum, like the Association, was renamed and became known as the Columbia Museum and Institute of Art.

The end of the museum was detailed in length in Sister Mary Kevin Gallagher's groundbreaking Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque published by the Archdiocese of Dubuque Press in 1987. The end of the museum began with debts incurred by Archbishop Beckman. Many works of art were returned to him for use as collateral against interest-bearing notes that had been issued in his name. When financial irregularities in the archdiocese were discovered, pieces of the collection were offered for sale to priests and institutions of the archdiocese. An estimated one hundred thousand dollars was raised. (13) New purchases of art were refused; the museum was closed. Most of the notes were paid off with a loan extended by a Des Moines bank. The cost to the archdiocese was estimated at $600,000. (14) Archbishop Beckman was replaced as the spiritual leader of the archdiocese.

Apparently unaware of this history, an article appeared in the Telegraph Herald in 1959 about the unpacking of items from the museum including paintings, statues, pottery and porcelain. These items stored since the 1940s were unpacked and cleaned for display around the Loras campus. In the article, it was claimed that the collection "went into hiding" when there developed a need in the early 1940s for more classroom space. The article stated that "the heart of the collection" remaining consisted of over 75 paintings and other artifacts. (15)

Additional items from the original collection were sold in the early 1970s. (16)



1. "Columbia Museum Experiences Real Progress; Hosts to KC Board Saturday," Telegraph-Herald, October 17, 1937, p. 22

2. "Name Public Relations Committee for Museum," Telegraph-Herald, April 15, 1936, p. 16

3. "Columbia Museum Experiences..."

4. Duddleston, Irvin F. "Columbia Museum 10 Years Old," Telegraph Herald, August 1, 1943, Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19430801&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. U. S. Inflation Calculator. Online: http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/

6. "C. C. Sponsors Special Event," Telegraph-Herald, April 28, 1940, p. 5

7. Duddleston

8. Ibid.

9. Telegraph-Herald, September 19, 1943, p. 18

10. Telegraph-Herald, May 1, 1939, p. 13

11. Duddleston

12. "Columbia Museum Experiences..."

13. Gallagher, Mary Kevin B.V.M. Seed/Harvest: A History of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Dubuque, Iowa: Archdiocese of Dubuque Press, 1987, p. 100

14. Ibid., p. 101

15. Ingerson, Ralph. "Art Will be Part of College Scene at Loras This Year," Telegraph Herald, September 13, 1959, p. 9

16. Interview with Dr. Darryl and Terry Mozena, December 6, 2017