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IOWA Magazine | 05-31-2022

At the UI Museum of Natural History, a Paradise Not Yet Lost

Iowa experts race to save one of the world’s few remaining cycloramas, which depicts the endangered bird haven Laysan Island in its heyday.
360 VIRTUAL TOUR: JOHN EMIGH Take a 360-degree virtual tour of the Laysan Island Cyclorama at the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

In the softly lit space, each bird seems primed to burst into flight at an instant. Laysan albatrosses dance, puffing their chests and pointing their beaks toward a painted sky. Nearby, a black-footed albatross lunges at a companion, while a masked booby preens fluff off its chick. On a rocky cliff, sooty terns bicker over a crab, as a dazzling red-tailed tropicbird floats above it all, surveying the hectic aviary below.

More than a century after it opened to the public, the Laysan Island Cyclorama continues to captivate visitors to the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History. Tucked away in Macbride Hall, the exhibit is a sprawling display containing more than 100 mounted seabirds, hundreds of thousands of wax leaves, and a massive mural of sweeping tropical vistas. While each individual element is eye-catching, their interplay creates an immersive experience. As visitors walk through the wood-paneled entrance, they are whisked away to Laysan Island, a wayward atoll some 4,500 miles from Iowa City.

Like most visitors, Liz Crooks (08BLS), director of the UI Pentacrest Museums, is transfixed by the cyclorama’s vast scope. In recent years, however, she has found it increasingly difficult to appreciate the entirety of the exhibition. Tours with conservators have revealed flaking paint, crumbling wax, and feathers coated in soot—signs of decay from a century on display. “As magical and impressive as it is, once the conservation needs were brought to my attention, I couldn’t unsee it,” she says.

To restore the Laysan Island Cyclorama—one of roughly 30 historic cycloramas still in existence worldwide—Crooks is spearheading an ambitious conservation effort. Like the distant ecosystem it depicts, the cyclorama has become an endangered environment of peeling paint and oily seabirds. “There is no lack of irony there,” Crooks says. “The cyclorama is dedicated to preserving this natural space and now is in dire need of conservation itself.”

And like a true ecological crisis, time is running out for the museum to restore the historic exhibit before Iowa’s piece of paradise is lost.

Zoology students PHOTOS COURTESY PENTACREST MUSEUMS In 1911, university museum curator Charles Nutting (1896BPH, pictured above) sent Iowa students Horace Young (1911BA) and Clarence Albrecht (1914BA), zoology professor Homer Dill, and muralist Charles Corwin (all pictured at top, from left to right) on an expedition to Laysan Island to gather specimens for an exhibit.


More Than a Wild Goose Chase

Charles Nutting’s grand vision for the Laysan Island Cyclorama was hatched in 1902, when he was half a world away from Iowa. In addition to his duties as a UI zoology professor, Nutting (1896BPH) was one of the world’s foremost experts on hydroids, a suite of minute, stinging predators related to jellyfish. His expertise booked him passage upon the U.S. steamer Albatross during a Smithsonian expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. As they trawled the deep sea and described novel species of marine life, the scientists also explored the smattering of remote atolls dotting that stretch of the Pacific.

U.S. steamer Albatross PHOTO COURTESY PENTACREST MUSEUMS Nutting first developed a fascination with Laysan Island on his 1902 voyage to Hawaii aboard the Albatross.

That was how Nutting first stepped foot on Laysan Island, a tiny outcrop of sand, coral, and little else. However, the island was far from uninhabited—millions of seabirds treated it as a stopover to breed and rear chicks. As Nutting gingerly navigated the cacophonous crowds, he was rightfully overwhelmed by the sight of 8 million birds crammed onto just 1.5 square miles of island. “For no one...could possibly contemplate this assemblage of avian life without being profoundly moved by the experience,” he would later write in a 1909 edition of The Iowa Alumnus.

Nutting wanted nothing more than to introduce his fellow Iowans to the natural splendor of Laysan. But he knew his words and grainy photographs could only do so much. Many of his readers had never seen saltwater, let alone contemplated the sight of thousands of albatrosses swaying in the tropical breeze, so Nutting undertook the ambitious task of bringing Laysan Island to Iowa.

Nutting already had a venue. In 1886, he became curator of the university’s Cabinet of Natural History, the oldest academic natural history museum west of the Mississippi River. In short order, he dusted off specimens that had languished for decades in storage and launched several far-flung expeditions to collect new material. To help exhibit the museum’s growing stockpile of specimens, Nutting hired the pioneering taxidermist Homer Dill in 1906.

Dill, a UI assistant professor of zoology, had never created a display approaching the magnitude of what Nutting envisioned for the Laysan exhibit. A standard diorama didn’t adequately encompass the sheer spectacle of Laysan Island, so they embraced an ambitious style of exhibition known as the cyclorama. Often wrapped inside a 360-degree mural, cycloramas (which are also called panoramas) were the virtual reality of their time, immersing visitors within the display. By melding the background mural with three-dimensional objects in the foreground, cycloramas gave the viewer a sense of contrast, creating the illusion of distance.

Map of islands

Cycloramas peaked in popularity in the late 19th century, when their sweeping displays became ideal for depicting epic military battles and whale hunts. Nutting, however, had a much different subject matter in mind. He sought to co-opt the epic vistas to capture a serene, tropical island teeming with birds instead of soldiers. The Laysan Island Cyclorama would be the first of these exhibits in the world to focus solely on a single ecosystem.

Nutting and Dill still had to procure an island’s worth of birds. The cost of a Hawaiian expedition was staggering, which forced Nutting to do a decade of impassioned fundraising. To ensure Laysan remained in the Iowa City zeitgeist, he lectured and wrote frequently on the wonders he had witnessed. During one 1909 lecture, the Iowa football team even performed a skit to raise money for the expedition.

By 1911, Nutting had secured enough funding to send Dill, two Iowa students, and an artist to Laysan. They were instructed to collect everything they found, from bird eggs to lumps of coral. However, the expedition hit an unforeseen snag as soon as Dill reached the island—there appeared to be little left to collect.

The “clouds of birds” Nutting described had all but vanished. Instead, Dill’s team was greeted by bleached bones and hacked-off albatross wings—the visceral evidence that Japanese feather poachers had recently raided the island. In total, their bloody excursions had slaughtered some 300,000 birds on Laysan, including half of the island’s albatross population.

A horde of invasive rabbits had also become entrenched on Laysan. “At times there are so many ears protruding, they resemble a vegetable garden,” Dill remarked in his expedition report. Introduced by the guano miners who once harvested the island’s bird waste as a fertilizer, the rabbits were devouring Laysan’s native shrubs and grasses, stripping the island of nesting material and the roots that anchored the sand in place. As the plant coverage vanished, shifting sands buried underground nesters and the island’s insect population plummeted, dooming several species of insectivore birds found nowhere else on earth.

While circumstances initially appeared bleak, Dill’s team managed to procure plenty of material for the exhibit. Most importantly, they collected nearly 400 bird specimens representing all 23 species that frequented the atoll. As they gathered the birds, they also took aim at the island’s invasive rabbits. Dill notes in his official report that the rabbits made for good eating. However, the team only made a dent in the population, and the plague of rabbits would last until 1923. This proved too late for several endemic species of birds, like the spindly Laysan rail and the ruby-red Laysan honeyeater, who succumbed to extinction.

In total, the team used boats and trains to ship 36 crates stocked with everything from terns to gravel across the Pacific and to the Midwest. However, once Dill and the expedition’s spoils returned to Iowa City, the real work began.

Utilizing his nascent museum studies program (the oldest such university program in the country), Dill and his students took years to create the exhibit. They posed 106 of the bird skins into dynamic positions around the display and molded 500,000 individual leaves out of wax. Charles Corwin, the expedition’s artist and a noted muralist at Chicago’s Field Museum, crafted a colossal mural from his field sketches. Altogether, the mural is 138 feet long and 12 feet high and depicts hundreds of birds to compliment the specimens in the foreground.

When the exhibit opened to the public in 1914, Iowans were finally able to experience Nutting’s vision firsthand. Museum visitors saw the terns and half expected to feel “the air quiver with their piercing shrieks,” as Nutting had described it. Nearby, they witnessed the bizarre spectacle of frigate birds inflating their large air sacs, which reminded Nutting of “the brilliant red toy balloons that delighted our childhood.” Corwin’s mural gave life to the “the snow-white coral sand, the dark green vegetation, and the intense blue of the tropic sky.” Together, Nutting and Dill had brought a slice of a tropical paradise to Iowa.

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Aerial image of Laysan Island PHOTO: UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Laysan Island Then and Now

1911:

While Hawaii itself was incredibly far-flung in the days before air travel, Laysan Island is distant even by Hawaiian standards. Once Dill and his team arrived in Honolulu, it took an additional week of sailing just to reach Laysan. They were aboard the military cutter Thetis and accompanied by scientists from the U.S. Biological Survey. Over the next six weeks, Dill’s team collected and prepared bird specimens for shipment, made sketches of the local environment, and surveyed the birds living on the island.

Despite its remoteness, the island had been frequented by whalers, marauding feather poachers, and even miners, who harvested the Laysan’s massive stores of guano, or bird waste, for fertilizer use. One of the guano miners introduced a couple of rabbits in the hope of starting a rabbit canning business. That plan was short-lived, however, and by the time Dill arrived, the island was overrun by rabbits.

Laysan Miller Bird illustration Laysan millerbird ILLUSTRATION: THE SMITHSONIAN LIBRARIES, ROTHSCHILD, LIONEL WALTER ROTHSCHILD, BARON. THE AVIFAUNA OF LAYSAN AND THE NEIGHBOURING ISLANDS.

To protect the island from poachers and development, President Theodore Roosevelt christened Laysan and several nearby islands a protected bird sanctuary in 1909—just two years before Dill arrived—although the designation did little initially to deter poachers or stop the ravenous rabbits. Within a decade of the cyclorama opening in Iowa, three species of birds depicted in the exhibit, including the Laysan millerbird, would already be extinct.

Today:

Laysan Island, which is also known by its Hawaiian name, Kauō, is now part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which helps manage Laysan, calls the islands “one of the crown jewels” of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Just like when Nutting visited, Laysan Island is the largest and most diverse colony in all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

While rabbits were eradicated in 1923, the island is still susceptible to harmful invaders like exotic grasses, which is why visiting the island has never been more difficult. While air travel makes these remote areas more accessible, strict restrictions are in place to limit the human visitors on Laysan to mostly researchers. Those few human visitors also have to freeze the clothes they plan to wear in order to kill any alien seeds or insects that may have tagged along for the ride.

However, some of Laysan’s new arrivals are welcome with open arms. In 2011, scientists reintroduced a population of Nihoa millerbirds to Laysan Island. While the small, drab birds are easily overlooked, their reintroduction to Laysan was a triumphant occasion because their close relative, the Laysan millerbird, went extinct a century ago due to the rabbits. The return of these tiny birds is just another aspect of the island that makes it nearly identical to the idealized paradise preserved in Iowa City.

While visiting the island is currently out of the question, Crooks and her team have discovered a way to explore Laysan from their offices in Iowa City. Thanks to Google Earth, anyone with an internet connection can view the picturesque beaches of Laysan with just a few clicks of the keyboard. The application offers sweeping 360-degree views, reminiscent of the display in Iowa. “You see these albatross chicks sitting in exactly the same way they are sitting in the cyclorama!” says Crooks. “The day that we discovered that, I don’t think anyone here got any work done. We just virtually toured the island.”

HISTORIC PHOTOS: “REPORT OF AN EXPEDITION TO LAYSAN ISLAND IN 1911: UNDER THE JOINT AUSPICES OF THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND UNIVERSITY OF IOWA” AND PENTACREST MUSEUMS

Race Against the Clock

Behind the glass, this avian paradise has remained frozen for more than a century. Brown noddies seem to bob their heads in the breeze, as petrels peek out of their burrows and bushy albatross chicks cozy up with parents. A discerning eye even catches Laysan honeyeaters bouncing from flower to flower among the throngs of boisterous seabirds.

At its core, the Laysan Island Cyclorama is an environmental time capsule, preserving a glimpse of an island unburdened by feather poachers and ravenous rabbits. In a similar sense, the exhibit itself has also become an artifact. Over the decades, the only changes to the display have been the replacement of the original pond material and the addition of interpretive panels and speakers that project recordings of each bird’s call. Behind the glass, everything is almost exactly how Nutting and Dill left it.

Unfortunately, their display has begun to wilt. The cyclorama sits in a corner of the museum’s Hageboeck Hall of Birds where there is no ventilation and the temperature fluctuates wildly. According to Crooks, much of the exhibit is also covered in a fine layer of soot from when the building was lit by gas lamps. Bright white albatross feathers are now drab shades of gray. Water leakage has warped parts of the mural. Other spots are peeling. To protect the specimens from destructive pests, Dill likely used arsenic—a carcinogenic chemical that taxidermists once commonly applied to their work. Crooks believes the toxin is likely sprinkled into the cyclorama’s sand and gravel.

Even the birds are causing decay. “These birds are waterfowl, so they are very oily,” Crooks says, referencing how many seabirds ooze oils to keep their feathers waterproof. Though prepared a century ago, they continue to exude oil, which Crooks says dulls their colors and damages other parts of the display. In this way, Crooks contends that the cyclorama is, in essence, “destroying itself.”

The growing list of eyesores may seem overwhelming. However, the museum staff stresses that a restoration project is possible if the museum can raise between $500,000 and $750,000 within the next five years. Establishing heating, cooling, ventilation, and humidity control is paramount to the effort, according to Jessica Smith (14BA), the museum’s communications coordinator. Until the underlying environment is stabilized, brushing soot off of birds will do little good.

Couple images of birds in the cyclorama PHOTO: JOHN EMIGH The Laysan albatross and red-tailed tropicbird are just two of the many birds represented in the cyclorama.

Smith likens the cyclorama to a “functioning ecosystem” as complex as the island environment it depicts. Each of its elements seem to affect another, making it crucial that restoration is a coordinated effort. If the museum raises the funds, they envision groups of conservators working on the cyclorama for weeks at a time, brightening up drab seabirds and cleaning Corwin’s mural inch by inch.

While the effort to save it seems herculean, the Laysan Island Cyclorama retains an international importance as one of the few intact cycloramas left. As museums began incorporating film into their displays in the early 20th century, the sprawling exhibits quickly went out of style and many were dismantled to make room for other attractions. The only traces of these lost cycloramas are splotchy newspaper clips.

This makes the Laysan Island Cyclorama a rarity—and cyclorama enthusiasts around the world have taken notice. In recent years, Crooks and the museum have become involved with the International Panorama Council, a Swiss nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of cycloramas around the world. In 2023, the entire cyclorama community will converge in Iowa City, when the IPC hosts its annual conference at the UI Museum of Natural History. “People are willing to come from all over the world—Turkey, Luxembourg, Australia,” Crooks says. “They’re coming here to see something that is in Iowa’s own backyard.”

Bird image from cyclorama PHOTO: JOHN EMIGH A male magnificent frigate bird (at left) attracts a mate with its red inflatable throat pouch, while adult and juvenile black-footed albatrosses (at right) flock together in the UI exhibit.

Crooks hopes the exposure will aid in their effort to restore the cyclorama. To her, the exhibit is much more than an attraction; it is an educational tool that has inspired an appreciation for nature in generations of local children and UI students—including Crooks herself. “It’s a very special place to me,” says Crooks, who graduated from the museum studies program founded by Dill and has now worked in Nutting’s former office for three years. While Nutting and Dill left behind the cyclorama, Crooks hopes her legacy is tied to saving the exhibit.

"We are at a critical juncture—the cyclorama needs to be conserved if it is to survive for future generations."—Liz Crooks, Director of Pentacrest Museums

However, the clock is ticking. “We are at a critical juncture—the cyclorama needs to be conserved if it is to survive for future generations,” Crooks says. She estimates that in five years, the cyclorama will likely be unsalvageable.

Like Nutting at the turn of the century, she and the museum have set out to tirelessly fundraise. Hitting the lecture circuit is no longer enough (although Smith stresses that if the Iowa football team wants to put together another sketch show, “we will gladly sponsor that”); Crooks encourages the university and alumni community to experience the cyclorama in person.

Crooks, like Nutting before her, believes that standing amid the albatrosses, terns, and shearwaters can spark a passion for the fragile nature of the distant island. She hopes that will also be enough to preserve the paradise a little closer to home.




Jack Tamisiea

Jack Tamisiea is a science writer based in Washington, D.C., who covers natural history and environmental issues. Tamisiea's work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, and many others. Tamisiea is also the son of Iowa alumnus John Tamisiea (87BBA) and grew up an avid Hawkeye fan.

Old image of musueum

More Museum Treasures

Founded in 1858, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History has had plenty of time to curate specimens from both Iowa and around the world. Here are five highlights, in addition to the Laysan Island Cyclorama, to check out on your next visit.

A Whale of a Skeleton:

Nutting procured this Atlantic right whale skeleton, which now hangs above the museum’s Mammal Hall, after the behemoth was beached by whalers along North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1898. Dill assembled and mounted the 47-foot skeleton in 1910. While the skeleton weighs a hefty 4,000 pounds, that’s a tiny fraction of the 50 tons the living animal would have weighed.

Missionary Panda:

Collected by medical missionary Robert A. Peterson (1916BS, 1918MD, 1919MS) in the remote mountains of central China, the museum’s paunchy panda specimen was mounted in 1934. Along with orangutans, a Sumatran rhinoceros, and a polar bear, the panda is just one of a number of rare and exotic animals displayed in the museum’s mammal menagerie.

Resurrected Snail:

Small enough to fit comfortably on a dime, the coiled shell of the Iowa Pleistocene snail in the museum’s Biosphere Discovery Hub doesn’t look like much. However, the discovery of this miniscule shell in an Iowa ravine in 1929 shocked researchers, because the snail was assumed to have gone extinct when the ice age ended 10,000 years ago. It is now known that the snails reside in small pockets of northeastern Iowa, where ice caves act as natural air conditioners, ensuring these creatures stay cool.

Russell’s Beasts of Burden:

In 1892, the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, sent Frank Russell (1892BS, 1895MS), a 23-year-old Iowa student, to the Arctic to track down the rare musk oxen. Two years later, after trekking some 3,000 miles on train, boat, dog sled and snowshoe, Russell returned to Iowa City, lugging the pelts and skulls of five musk oxen. Three of these are still on display in the museum’s Mammal Hall, huddled up to ward off a pack of wolves.

Ancient Ape Chompers:

Standing 10 feet tall and weighing an estimated 1,200 pounds, Gigantopithecus is the largest ape known to science. While the giant primate succumbed to extinction in Southeast Asia 300,000 years ago, some believe Gigantopithecus lives on in the form of the mythic yeti. The museum’s ground floor is home to a bushy bust of the beast, which contains real orangutan hair, and a cast of the giant’s jaw created by UI anthropologist and professor emeritus Russell Ciochon, who studies the diet of these ancient giants.


Make a gift to support the University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums.


Aerial image of Laysan Island PHOTO: UNITED STATES GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Laysan Island Then and Now

1911:

While Hawaii itself was incredibly far-flung in the days before air travel, Laysan Island is distant even by Hawaiian standards. Once Dill and his team arrived in Honolulu, it took an additional week of sailing just to reach Laysan. They were aboard the military cutter Thetis and accompanied by scientists from the U.S. Biological Survey. Over the next six weeks, Dill’s team collected and prepared bird specimens for shipment, made sketches of the local environment, and surveyed the birds living on the island.

Despite its remoteness, the island had been frequented by whalers, marauding feather poachers, and even miners, who harvested the Laysan’s massive stores of guano, or bird waste, for fertilizer use. One of the guano miners introduced a couple of rabbits in the hope of starting a rabbit canning business. That plan was short-lived, however, and by the time Dill arrived, the island was overrun by rabbits.

Laysan Miller Bird illustration Laysan millerbird ILLUSTRATION: THE SMITHSONIAN LIBRARIES, ROTHSCHILD, LIONEL WALTER ROTHSCHILD, BARON. THE AVIFAUNA OF LAYSAN AND THE NEIGHBOURING ISLANDS.

To protect the island from poachers and development, President Theodore Roosevelt christened Laysan and several nearby islands a protected bird sanctuary in 1909—just two years before Dill arrived—although the designation did little initially to deter poachers or stop the ravenous rabbits. Within a decade of the cyclorama opening in Iowa, three species of birds depicted in the exhibit, including the Laysan millerbird, would already be extinct.

Today:

Laysan Island, which is also known by its Hawaiian name, Kauō, is now part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which helps manage Laysan, calls the islands “one of the crown jewels” of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Just like when Nutting visited, Laysan Island is the largest and most diverse colony in all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

While rabbits were eradicated in 1923, the island is still susceptible to harmful invaders like exotic grasses, which is why visiting the island has never been more difficult. While air travel makes these remote areas more accessible, strict restrictions are in place to limit the human visitors on Laysan to mostly researchers. Those few human visitors also have to freeze the clothes they plan to wear in order to kill any alien seeds or insects that may have tagged along for the ride.

However, some of Laysan’s new arrivals are welcome with open arms. In 2011, scientists reintroduced a population of Nihoa millerbirds to Laysan Island. While the small, drab birds are easily overlooked, their reintroduction to Laysan was a triumphant occasion because their close relative, the Laysan millerbird, went extinct a century ago due to the rabbits. The return of these tiny birds is just another aspect of the island that makes it nearly identical to the idealized paradise preserved in Iowa City.

While visiting the island is currently out of the question, Crooks and her team have discovered a way to explore Laysan from their offices in Iowa City. Thanks to Google Earth, anyone with an internet connection can view the picturesque beaches of Laysan with just a few clicks of the keyboard. The application offers sweeping 360-degree views, reminiscent of the display in Iowa. “You see these albatross chicks sitting in exactly the same way they are sitting in the cyclorama!” says Crooks. “The day that we discovered that, I don’t think anyone here got any work done. We just virtually toured the island.”

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