University Museums, Iowa State University

Andrea Truitt's picture

Location: Ames, Iowa

Farm House Museum:

Iowa Artists Collection:

Christian Petersen Art Collection:


Farm House Museum

The Farm House was built between 1860 and 1865 and is the oldest surviving building on the Iowa State campus.  The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and was opened to the public as a museum on July 4th, 1976. 

The house itself is significant not only for its age, but for the major role it played in the creation of Iowa State University.  As a home, it housed seventeen families throughout the years, including college presidents and deans, farm superintendents, college faculty, and students.  The Farm House witnessed the birth of a land-grant institution, the struggles to maintain a rural campus, and the exceptional growth that would occur in the 20th century. 

There is little to no documentation on the interiors and objects that were within the house, so the decision was made to collect and furnish the house with objects from 1860 to 1910, the period within the National Historic Landmark designation.  The structure of the house is simple, built out of necessity by the community for the forthcoming educational institution and from 1861 to 1868 it was the only complete structure on the rural campus.  The original use was to be a home for the farm superintendent and their family, but became the administrative center of the college as it worked up to opening the campus for classes in 1869.  In fact, the first and second presidents of the college made their first homes at the Farm House and later it would become the home to successive deans of agriculture.  Some of the most prominent inhibitors were Seaman Knapp, the second president of the college from 1881-1885, and James “Tama Jim” Wilson, director of the college experiment station from 1891-1897, both of whom became nationally recognized for their leadership in agricultural policy. 

Dean of Agriculture, Charles F. Curtiss, was the longest resident of the house, living there with his family for 50 years from 1897-1947.  The only known photograph of the Farm House library is from 1907 when he lived there and today the museum includes two objects known to have been owned by Curtiss and in that library during his residency.  They are a magazine stand made by the Arts & Crafts enclave Roycroft and given as a present to Curtiss from his students in the Class of 1901 and the unusually carved armchair depicting the Man of the North Wind (which is visible in the one photograph). 

The remainder of the interior is committed to depicting the years when the college developed from its infancy as a rural educational institution in the prairie to a rapidly expanding center for knowledge.  Significant restoration and stabilization was done before opening as a museum in 1976, with a second phase of conservation for the exterior in 1999, and most recently in 2015 the replacement of window structures and new historic wallpapering more in line with what was most likely in the house at the turn of the century.  Today, the Farm House stands as a reminder of the humble beginnings of this now world-class institution, shaded by the large buildings which have been built in the last 150 years and made possible by those early inhabitants of this home.


Iowa Artists Collection

One of the University Museums’ signature permanent collections is the Iowa Artist Collection.  It began in the late 1920s and 1930s with Zenobia Ness, Raymond M. Hughes, Grant Wood, and Christian Petersen.  Today there are over 150 significant Iowa artists in the permanent collection with over 2000 works of art created by those artists. 

Iowa State University has always been a place of great beauty.  The understanding that the aesthetics of this campus would add greatly to the education of the young sons and daughters of farmers who first attended the college was an important ideal in the establishment and construction of the early land-grant college.  Much of the planning of the landscape and architecture for this campus was based on this belief, which naturally led to the art that in the 20th century began to be incorporated into the campus. The first commission of a practicing Iowa artist occurred in 1925 when Nellie Verne Walker was commissioned to create two bas-relief panels on the newly constructed Library building at the heart of campus.  She was, in fact, the most prominent Iowa sculptor of her time and set the stage for the ensuing work of Iowa artists on campus to come.  In the 1930s, it was the direction of President Raymond Hughes that truly brought fine art to the forefront of this campus and began the wonderful permanent collection of Iowa artists we hold today.

One of the first significant Iowa artists who came to Iowa State and can be considered to have designed our earliest object in the Iowa Artists collection was Grant Wood, a well-known and respected artist from Cedar Rapids and the father of American Regionalism.  When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow, the mural cycle designed by Grant Wood and executed by nine young Iowa artists in Wood’s mural studio as part of the federal Public Works of Art Program or PWAP (predecessor to the Works Progress Administration or WPA program), was painted for what is now the Parks Library on campus and remain iconic images to this day. 

It was through Wood and these federal government programs that one of Iowa State’s beloved and most prolific artists, Christian Petersen (1885-1961), came to campus.  In late 1933, Petersen was hired by the President of Iowa State to create a fountain for the courtyard of the Dairy Industries Building.  In 1934, Petersen was hired by Grant Wood to become one his artists participating in the Iowa PWAP program and worked independently from Wood on the History of Dairying fountain.  Soon Petersen was again hired by President Hughes to become the first, permanent artist-in-residence on this campus and in the United States.  Petersen spent the next twenty-one years on campus in that capacity and the sculptures made by Petersen remain the core of the Art on Campus Collection, along with the inspiration to continue in his legacy and tradition.                                                                         

Iowa State excelled in the 1930s and early 1940s in bringing art, especially the arts of Iowa, to campus, primarily through the Memorial Union.  Much of that is thanks to Zenobia Ness, a well-known professor in the Division of Home Economics, a WOI-AM radio hostess, and advocate for the arts of Iowa.  Her position as head of the Iowa State Fair’s Iowa Art Salon, from 1927-1939, made it possible for her to bring a selection of the first place winners to be exhibited at the Memorial Union each year.  She also had the power and ability to place works of art in highly trafficked locations working with the Campus Art Committee, ensuring that art became an important aspect of the visual appeal on the interior of the campus buildings. 

These early efforts of artists, educators, and administration set an important precedent that may have ebbed at times in the ensuing years, but was picked up with great enthusiasm by University Museums.  With the implementation of the newly created Iowa Art in State Buildings legislation in 1979, and the mandate of the Iowa Arts Council that Iowa artists must be considered for this program, the collection of Iowa artists grew.  As a young organization at this time, University Museums set out to create an exceptional Iowa artists collection.  First collecting at the grassroots level, the artists that meant something to University Museums as a land-grant extension-focused institution uniquely placed on a campus that was primed and ready to fill its walls, lawns, and newly created museum with art, continuing a heritage begun so many years before.  This has continued throughout the past 40 years and evolved into a dynamic and significant collection of Iowa artists that exists today.


Christian Petersen Art Collection

The art of the sculptor Christian Petersen had a profound effect on the beauty of the Iowa State University campus, but his role as an educator and mentor sealed his legacy at the institution.  University Museums is the proud recipient of this legacy, seen in the continued development of public art on campus and in the extraordinary collection of hundreds of Petersen’s drawings, sketches, and maquettes, donated by his wife Charlotte.

Petersen was born in Denmark and immigrated to the United States as a child.  He came to the Midwest as the only sculptor participating in the federal Public Works of Art Program (PWAP) in Iowa, working with Grant Wood.  Hired in 1933 by the college President Raymond M. Hughes, he began to design and create a unique fountain for the courtyard of the Dairy Industries building.  Soon after, Hughes hired Petersen as the first, permanent artist-in-residence on this campus and in the United States.  He would continue in this role for the next 21 years, from 1934 to 1955, creating an indelible impact on the visual beauty of the campus through his twelve major works of public art.  As a teacher, he was beloved by his students, gently guiding the creativity of countless young men and women on campus. 

The public sculptures created by Petersen remain to this day the core of the Art on Campus Collection.  In 2007, after extensive renovation and restoration of Morrill Hall, the Christian Petersen Art Museum was opened.  During his life he created over 1,250 works of art and the Christian Petersen Art Collection housed in Morrill Hall holds about 80% of his sketches, drawings, sculptures, and maquettes.  University Museums continues to promote Petersen’s legacy as an important artist and sculptor working in a uniquely Midwestern style and his importance as the first artist-in-residence whose art began what is now a world class public art collection.