Screen shot from a U-I video on Laysan Island Cyclorama.

A fundraising campaign is underway to renovate a rare exhibit that’s captivated visitors to the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History for more than a century.

The Laysan  Island Cyclorama in Macbride Hall provides an immersive 360-degree view of multiple colonies of birds that inhabit the sandy island in the Pacific Ocean. Liz Crooks, director of the U-I Pentacrest Museums, says each bird was brought back by Iowa students and faculty during a 1911 expedition.

“There are 102 specimens in the exhibit. Those include birds of all manners, some small perching birds, all the way up to large seafaring birds like the albatross,” Crooks says. “There are all manner of plant life that would be found on the island.” Cycloramas were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This one opened in 1914 and is among only about 30 such exhibits remaining worldwide.

With a little imagination, the surrounding sights and sounds can charm people away to the tiny atoll near Hawaii — some 4,500 miles from Iowa City. “The mural itself, the background, is 128 feet long and 12 feet high and it’s filled with images of the island,” Crooks says. “It blends seamlessly into the foreground, so it really transports the visitor to that time and space.” She refers to the cyclorama as a “national treasure” and is leading the charge to raise one-million dollars to give the exhibit a complete makeover, so it will endure for future generations.

“It’s going to take that kind of funding to hire conservators to come in and clean and repair those 102 birds. They have not been touched since they were installed in 1914,” Crooks says. “The mural itself needs to be cleaned and that will be a big undertaking.” The renovation project will also include new lighting, updated windows and, perhaps most importantly, the inclusion of heating, cooling and ventilation.

“We have no way to control the temperature of the space, which is probably the biggest stressor on the exhibit,” Crooks says. “We see evidence of changes in the mural. It’s cracking, the canvas is flexing. Iowa is either very dry or very humid, and those big swings in humidity are hard on both the specimens and the painted mural.”

To donate to the effort, visit the U-I Museum of Natural History’s website  and look for the link to the Laysan Island Cyclorama Restoration Fund.

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