This museum opened in 2003 and has grown to become an affiliate of the Smithsonian. The museum offers a variety of exhibits, ranging from river maps, informational displays on historical types of boats, and aquariums filled with aquatic wildlife. The museum focusses on the human history of the region as well as the diverse wildlife that inhabit rivers and wetlands complete with an aquarium and numerous programs dedicated to science. Additionally, there are seasonal exhibits that change throughout the year. Part of the museum is located in the historic Dubuque Freight House, which was built in 1901 by the Chicago, Burlington and Northern Railroad. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Mississippi River Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate and has earned accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. Exhibits at the River Museum cover a broad range of subjects, from ecological to historical. Aquarium sections in the museum house many different kinds of river wildlife, while other sections are devoted to historical aspects of rivers, such as the ways that people have lived on them in the past.
Nascent plans for the museum were first revealed in 1998. Known at the time as the “Americas River Project,” the museum was originally limited to a collection of fourteen aquariums, all varying in size. The original designs were still ambitious, costing millions of dollars to construct before the museum’s first opening. In following years, the scope of the museum has greatly expanded to house much more wildlife than originally planned, as well as the addition of historical exhibits.
Historical aspects of rivers and river life are one of the important areas of focus at the Mississippi River Museum. The Iowa Marine Engine and Launch Works is an example of an exhibit that focuses on river history. This exhibit showcases informational displays and remnants of a factory that produced parts for marine engines back in the early 20th century. Another such exhibit is the “Rivers are Roads” display. Rivers are Roads shows details on the ways that rivers have been used by different people for different reasons over the course of history.
Other exhibits focus on the natural processes of rivers. One example is the Mississippi River Watershed Map, which can be viewed in the museum. The map details an enormous range of land, where all water is eventually drained into the Gulf of Mexico. Another interesting information exhibit is the Mississippi Floor Map. The Mississippi Floor map provides information on the width and depth of the river throughout its length, with the titular map acting as a visual aid.
The museum includes many different attractions based around the types of wildlife that inhabit rivers, wetlands, and other aquatic environments. One such exhibit is the “Backwater Marsh” exhibit, which focuses on wildlife found in wetlands that form around rivers. Visitors can learn about the ecological function of wetlands, as well as the animals that inhabit them, such as toads and waterfowl. Another key feature of the River Museum is the Gulf of Mexico Aquarium. The Gulf of Mexico Aquarium is the largest saltwater aquarium in the entire museum. It showcases the biodiversity that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, including many kinds of fish and a green sea turtle.
The museum also plays a role in various conservation efforts. From 2016 to 2017, the museum partnered with students in the area to help breed freshwater mussels, for the purpose of releasing the adult mussels into the Mississippi River. In the two year span of this conservation effort, over 60,000 mussels were bred and released. The museum also helps with conservation efforts with a rare species, the Wyoming toad. The population of the toad has decreased drastically, starting back in the 1970s. The species is still threatened today, but the museum’s participation in conservation efforts has helped prevent the species from disappearing.