State Historical Building Renovation

    Statement from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

    For the last several years, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) has been appropriated dollars by the Governor and the Iowa Legislature to begin planning for a potential renovation of the State Historical Building and to address immediate infrastructure repairs of the building. Given certain staff dedicated time to the planning process, a portion of their salaries used these appropriated funds, which was allowable and approved by the Legislature.

    The State Historical Building of Iowa, located on the Capitol Complex in Des Moines, is home to the state’s flagship museum – a repository for 209 million pieces of Iowa’s history and a public institution serving all Iowans. In 1987, the State Historical Building opened as “a symbol of the state’s pride in its past and faith in its future”.

    The State’s Collection

    Since the Museum began 157 years ago in the basement of the state capitol, artifacts have been collected to tell Iowa’s story. When every single historical artifact, photograph, page of manuscript, birth certificate, rare book or archive in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collection is recognized, it totals more than 209 million pieces of Iowa history. 

    Through this project, a comprehensive approach will be undertaken to improve the physical storage environment, to increase access by exhibiting the collection in rebuilt flexible galleries with flexible infrastructure, and to better preserve the collection in museum standard storage systems utilizing today’s technology. The State Historical Museum and Research Centers must evolve to utilize current day collection management standards to become a place where history is preserved and technology is embraced to reach a broader audience. 

    Building Issues and Immediate Repairs

    The State Historical Building (SHB) has been facing a number of structural and maintenance issues for many years and is now at a critical juncture. The SHB has a failing building envelope with no vapor barrier, exposed pipes above exhibits and collection storage, unsealed concrete ceilings, water leaks, a faulty internal drainage system, failing exterior granite and an outdated heating and cooling system that needs to be replaced in its entirety. Further, this environment does not meet museum standards for long-term preservation of the collection. Through a renovation, all of these issues will be addressed while reutilizing the existing infrastructure to ensure the most cost-effective renovation solution.

    Over the past three years, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has undergone a thorough planning process to determine a renovation solution that will not only address the existing building issues but better enable the museum to preserve the collection, be the educational resource for Iowa history and connect Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. 

    Project Description

    The proposed solution for the State Historical Building Renovation will maximize the reuse of the existing infrastructure, while right-sizing the building to a square footage that is more manageable for the department within its given operating budget. The west portion which makes up two-thirds of the building will be renovated to accommodate exhibit galleries, classrooms, collection storage and office functions, while the east portion which is one-third of the current building will be removed to create a new outdoor public space and allow for sightlines with spectacular views of the state Capitol. Programmatic functions currently on the east side will be moved to the west side, creating a better defined visitor experience and more efficient staff operations. The existing building is underutilized and therefore oversized at 234,000 square feet; the new plan at 155,000 square feet will be more functional, flexible and adaptable for the future.

    This renovation to the building can be transformative for the collection, for the visitor experience and for the Capitol Gateway. The new design allows the museum to better connect to the beautifully landscaped west lawn complementing one of Iowa’s most important artifacts, the state Capitol, and the Historic East Village, a thriving community with unique retail, residential and entertainment venues.

    What Iowans Want

    Through community input, the DCA has learned Iowans appreciate the Department of Cultural Affairs’ role to elevate all things that are uniquely Iowa. 

    The SHB must be more reflective of the 99 counties to fully tell the story of Iowa to Iowans and out-of-state visitors. The building is the only entity in Iowa capable of and tasked with fulfilling this vision through the collection and has the opportunity to bring Iowa history to the forefront of the state.

    Iowans want the department to expand its reach and engage with all corners of the state, through traveling exhibits, sharing and digitizing the collection and working with historical societies and other cultural entities. 

    The groundwork was laid through this planning and over the past five months, the DCA has been working with a construction manager, an architectural design firm and a museum design firm to work through a possible renovation in more detail – determining the ideal square footage needed and the purpose it will serve while also ensuring the DCA can manage and operate the space within the current budget. Through this conceptual design process, the following three priorities have been a driving force behind the DCA and State Historical Society of Iowa’s vision:


    We are the keeper of Iowa’s history through our state’s collection, and it is our responsibility to preserve it for future generations.


    We are the content experts on Iowa history, and our building must be the epicenter from which this all stems. We will play a critical role as educator and will serve as a significant resource for educators.


    We connect people to Iowa and from all across the state. Our building and museum will become the Visitor Center for the Capitol Complex and our State.


    Since 2012, the Governor and the State Legislature have appropriated $3.65 million dollars for initial planning and immediate infrastructure repairs. Building upon this investment, the DCA is well-positioned to move forward with this project. 

    The DCA has requested $65 million dollars in State Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund (RIIF) funding for the design, construction and renovation of the State Historical Building, including a partnership with a private entity to build out commercial space for the purpose of offering adjacent visitor amenities. The $65 million dollars will be appropriated over five years toward the total project budget of $79.6 million. The remaining funds, roughly $14 million dollars, will be raised from other sources. The total $79.6 million renovation project includes building design and construction, furniture, fixtures and equipment (FFE) along with exhibit and collection infrastructure, storage and related technology.

    A renovation of the State Historical Building, our state’s flagship museum, is not only necessary, but one that will benefit every Iowan, for today and future generations. 

    Iowa in a National Context

    There are 41 other states with a state flagship museum. Eight of them, including Colorado, North Dakota, Utah, Indiana and Tennessee, have recently rebuilt or expanded their state museums in capital projects that range from $47 million to $200 million. Iowa can learn from other states facing similar challenges to collection management, digitization and museum best practices.

    To learn more please read the project summary, predesign report and view the rendering video below: