University lion project blends local, natural history
IOWA CITY (AP) — It’s called “Project Lio-rama.”
The University of Iowa Museum of Natural History is appealing directly to the public to fund a new diorama exhibit for its lion and lioness — two of the most popular denizens of the museum’s Mammal Hall.
And these aren’t just any two anonymous specimens of Panthera leo.
They are Harry and Josephine, a pair of lion cubs brought to Iowa City from South Africa in the late 1920s who spent years living together in the small zoo in City Park. The Iowa City Council voted to close the zoo in 1976.
Harry, aka “King Leo,” died in 1931 and was added to the museum’s exhibit. Josephine, aka “Pet,” joined him after she died in 1939.
The pair was not always displayed together over the next eight decades, but during renovations in the 1980s they were placed for storage in a spare, unfinished exhibit booth. They have remained there, unchanged, ever since. Many of their mammalian class members, in the meantime, have since been featured in three-dimensional reconstructions of their habitats.
“So it’s overdue,” said Trina Roberts, director of the Pentacrest Museums, which include the UI Museum of Natural History and the Old Capitol Museum.
Given how often museum patrons over the years have asked why Harry and Josephine weren’t featured in their own diorama, museum officials thought a crowdfunding appeal might be a way to combine a slice of Iowa City history with a chance to tell a broader global story about lions, zoos and conservation efforts.
“That’s one reason this is such a great project to take on,” Roberts said. “It’s both a natural history story as well as a local story that some people in the area already know. We’ve had patrons who came to see the lions as kids and now are telling the story as they bring their grandkids.”
The Press-Citizen reports the resulting $10,000 campaign is one of three projects chosen to kick off the university’s new GOLDrush site, a new online crowdsourcing platform developed by the UI Foundation and the Office for the Vice President of Research and Economic Development.
The other $10,000 campaigns on the site are “Health for All: Improve Health Access for Congolese Refugees,” which aims to improve access to health care for women and children in Johnson County’s Congolese community, and “Distraction in Action: Helping Kids in Pain,” which supports the development and availability of a digital app that can help distract children who are undergoing painful medical procedures. Every campaign has a 30-day window to raise the money.
UI officials are quick to point out that the new platform is meant to augment, not replace, the university’s larger-scale funding efforts through the UI Foundation, state appropriations and research grants.
“Those efforts involve raising hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars,” said Dan Reed, UI’s vice president for research and economic development. “(The GOLDrush site) involves projects designed to appeal to the donor who says, ‘I can’t send you a thousand dollars, but I can send you a $50 check.’ “
The projects featured on the site will have a maximum budget of $10,000 — which Reed described as a “realistic target” based on the history of other successful crowdfunding efforts on platforms like GoFundMe.com or Kickstarter.com.
“As we think about the nature and partnership between the university and its alumni, there is a new generation of alumni — millennial and beyond — that have different interests and perspectives about philanthropy,” Reed said. “This was a vehicle to broaden the base of philanthropy and see if there are projects that would resonate more directly with people.”
In terms of establishing its own crowdfunding site, Reed said UI is somewhere in the middle of the pack among its peer institutions. Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa already offer similar crowdfunding services through their respective Fund ISU and PAW (Philanthropy at Work) Print sites.
Lynette Marshall, president of the UI Foundation, said although the platform currently is focused on faculty and staff projects, the goal eventually is to expand it for student research projects as well.
“We don’t intend to wait a terribly long time on that,” Marshall said.
Successful funding for “Project Lio-rama,” Roberts said, also will allow the museum staff and students to verify which aspects of the story of Harry and Josephine hold up to scholarly scrutiny and which have crossed the line into local myth-making.
In a 1983 column for the Press-Citizen, the late local historian Irving Weber wrote that the cubs initially had been kept in a carriage house on the east side of Iowa City — with their roars causing distress nightly among the neighbors.
“Some of this has a flavor of urban legend that is becoming accepted fact,” Roberts said, “which is why we would like to have a little more research.”