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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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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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NATIONAL MISSISSIPPI RIVER MUSEUM AND AQUARIUM. (For the most current information on exhibits and programs, visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium at its own website.)

The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, operated by the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY interprets both the cultural and environmental history of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER with a mission to preserve the history of the river and the river itself.

Architects plans for the proposed $25 million Mississippi River Discovery Center were unveiled to the public on January 19, 1998. Visitors could study Mississippi River wildlife using four aquariums up to 35 feet long and nine feet high and ten smaller aquariums. The "America's River Project" was a combined effort of the Dubuque County Historical Society, City of Dubuque, and the DUBUQUE AREA CHAMBER OF COMMERCE. (1) It was announced on January 23, 1998 that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service would help create exhibits. (2)

Considered a major project of Dubuque’s $188 million-dollar river renovation effort, the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and Hall of Fame is home to thousands of fish and other animals including alligators, otters, and several species of birds. State of the art immersion theaters, interactive wet-labs, touch-pools, towboats, a boat and breakfast aboard the WILLIAM M. BLACK, and scores of exhibits have helped the complex achieve the goal of making Dubuque a center of TOURISM. The five-acre campus housing the William Woodward Discovery Center, NATIONAL RIVERS HALL OF FAME, FRED W. WOODWARD RIVERBOAT MUSEUM, Pfohl Boatyard, a wetland, and a refurbished train depot have welcomed over 250,000 visitors annually.

Special exhibits and opportunities have added to the attraction of the Museum & Aquarium. An early theme of the Museum & Aquarium was frogs with dozens of live specimens on display. "Catfish Planet" in 2007 featured the species of catfish found around the world. The program “Venom,” in 2008 displayed all colorful and venomous creatures including spiders, jelly fish, bugs, frogs, snakes, lizards and fish. In 2008 the Museum & Aquarium assisted the Association of Zoos and Aquariums draw attention to the amphibian crisis by offering five new frog displays. Experiencing the life of a blacksmith was possible during Blacksmith Days the same year. This special event highlighted the importance of blacksmithing and metal working along the Mississippi River during pioneer times.

In 2008 visitors could take a 90-minute Eco Cruise. While on the cruise aboard a pontoon-style boat, a Museum & Aquarium guide lead visitors to explore several aspects of the river from the backwaters to Catfish Creek. Visitors also learned about the natural and historic elements that make up the Mississippi River.

The Museum & Aquarium is accredited by the American Association of Museums - a distinction held by only nine percent of American museums. In 2002 the Museum and Aquarium was named the first river museum in the nation to become an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. This designation has given the museum access to the Smithsonian’s vast collection from American cultural artifacts to fine art. Plans were underway for a major expansion that would double the size of the campus in the coming decade.

In 2007 the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium announced a $38 million expansion. The museum planned to renovate the Diamond Jo's Portside Building into the "Great Rivers Center." This would include a "National Rivers Center," a "Rivers Research Center," additional exhibit area, and retail space. The museum also planned to construct a 250-seat IMAX-like "RiverMax Theater." The museum was also positioned to take over the Diamond Jo's existing riverboat. The complex was scheduled to be completed in 2010.

In 2009 and 2017 articles in the TELEGRAPH HERALD focused community attention on the role the Museum & Aquarium was playing in the lives of several endangered species. One of the threatened species mentioned was the Wyoming toad, one of the four most endangered amphibian species in the United States. In 2009 the Museum & Aquarium cared for one-tenth of the Wyoming toads in captivity. (3) Working with the UNIVERSITY OF DUBUQUE, the staff of the Museum & Aquarium helped to identify aquatic species in the Mbaracayu Nature Reserve of Paraquay. The staff was successful in breeding Red Rain Frogs and Laotian newts and was an important contributor in efforts to reintroduce the Higgins' eye pearly mussel to eastern Iowa waters. (4) In 2017 staff at the museum raised logperch, a small fish important to the life cycle of the snuffbox mussel. (5)

When the project was begun, one estimate suggested it could draw an estimated 176,000 additional tourists to the city with an economic impact of $128 million. In 2017 the museum had an average of 200,000 visitors annually and an operating budget of $7.3 million with 2,600 members. (6)

See: Jerry ENZLER

    Robert DAVIS
    Kurt STRAND



1. Krapfl, Mike. "Officials Release Architect's Plans For Proposed River Discovery Center," Telegraph Herald, January 20, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980120&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

2. Krapfl, Mike. "Discovery Center Effort Gains a Partner," Telegraph Herald, January 23, 1998, p. 3A. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19980123&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

3. "Conservation Programs," Online: http://www.rivermuseum.com/initiatives/conservation-programs/

4. Ibid.

5. Hogstrom, Erik. "A Small Fish, A Huge Conservation Effort," Telegraph Herald, November 3, 2017, p. 3A

6. Hogstrom, Erik. "Strand to Lead Historical Society, River Museum," Telegraph Herald, April 28, 2017, p. 1A

Website of the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium