One on One with Lynette Pohlman


Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

Q&A with Lynette Pohlman, director of the University Museums.

Aimee Burch

It’s safe to say that Lynette Pohlman has seen more memorable, historic Iowa State moments than anyone else on campus. The director and chief curator of University Museums has a unique vantage point from which to view these moments occur. On the anniversary of the Morrill Act, Pohlman reflects back on its meaning and the time that piece of paper visited Ames. She also describes what life is like from her position.

Could you give us an overview of Iowa State’s involvement with the Morrill Act?

I think the Morrill Act is expressed around us. Remember, you’re talking to a museum person, so I’m all about the interpretation of objects that we have. I think the Morrill Act is expressed as you walk across campus. While Iowa State was founded prior to the Morrill Act, we really didn’t get underway until four years after when we started admitting people into college. So to me, when you walk across central campus, that’s the Morrill Act. When you see students contemporarily walking across, that’s the Morrill Act. When I see images of Abraham Lincoln, I think of the summer of 1862 and how many things did he sign into legislation that impacted us. We’re in the Civil War and he’s signing educational measures. He’s signing transportation so we have the Union Pacific go by. It was all access and growth, intellectual access for everyone and I just see that expressed in the library as you walk down. It’s the however many volumes of books they have in there. It’s the number of classes we have. It’s the faces of the students. That’s the Morrill Act expressed to me on a day-to-day basis.

If you want to think about the piece of paper, that more specifically goes back to when Iowa State was celebrating its sesquicentennial which coincided with us restoring Morrill Hall. Not many Morrill Halls remain on land grant universities and so it was a significant thing that Iowa State restored and renovated that building to a modern use. We opened that museum on the 150th anniversary, March 22 [2008], and that was an important date for us. We wanted one of the earliest shows to be the Morrill Act. And I would say, rather naively, we went to Washington and said, “can we bring the Morrill Act here?” And the person we talked to was…a registrar for the National Archives. He was incredibly generous. No one had ever asked that question before. Even though he had been there many years, he had actually never seen the Morrill Act. It’s one of what they call the “vault items” and one of the top most precious documents the nation has. It’s not like it’s out on view very often, and so the National Archives had a long list of requirements that we had to fulfill. So we did and we were able to loan that document. It took us about a year and a half to go through this process and it was then put on exhibit in Morrill Hall for our sesquicentennial. It was an amazing thing. It was its first time out of Washington D.C. and it came to Iowa State University. To me, that was a huge expression of the Morrill Act. What it means is…it’s words on a paper. Words are powerful. But the implementation over hundreds of years is even more incredible. How many millions of people have been educated by that? It changed the course of a nation.

What’s an average day for you like?

I’m director and chief curator of the university museums. I feel like I am responsible for the cultural heritage of Iowa State, and that certainly is embedded in each of our museum functions. What’s an average day? It’s administration. It’s research on objects and exhibitions. It’s fundraising. It’s teaching. It’s public relations. I’ll do anything that isn’t illegal, immoral, or unethical to impart the cultural heritage of Iowa State. And it varies from day to day. That’s what makes it a fascinating, wonderful job. The people you get to meet. The very fact that, with legitimacy, I could go to the National Archives and say, can we borrow the Morrill Act? and that they would say yes eventually. That’s the kind of interactions we can have.

I’m in the process now of working on three different books. We probably work on about 15 art on campus projects where we commission major art in a year’s time. We work on maybe eight to twelve exhibitions around two or three classes that are team taught. It isn’t the same every day. It’s very diverse.

Have you had a favorite or memorable moment while in this position?

More than I can remember. It’s a wonderful job. I can tell you most recently…about the Christian Peterson panthers. If you can imagine looking for those for 19 years and six months, and then finding them. I was sitting here [at my desk] and one of the guest curators who has been involved for hunt for the panthers as well…we had a lot of leads and we had many books and trips around the country looking for those panthers. It was 19 years, six months, and three clicks on the computer and we found a visual image of the panthers at Middlebury College. You could have heard us scream across campus! We knew where they were. That was a very exciting moment. It’s the detective story that goes on endlessly. We’re continuing the panther search. We have them now, but why were they made? How did they get to where they were? We don’t know all of that story yet, and that’s what all this [points to piles of books and papers] is about is the panther story. Why were they made? Who were they made for? And filling in the blanks. How does that inform the Peterson story and his cultural legacy to Iowa State?

There have been a lot of “Wow!” moments that I can’t believe. I’ve seen the flood waters come over that intramural field. I’ve seen the big wave come in 1993. There have been a lot of memorable moments, from that horror terror, to very wonderful, “Aha!” moments. The best moments are when you’re in class and you know the kids get it. And you can feel on the back of your head the hairs stand up and you know that learning moment is complete. It’s not only intellectually, but emotionally. It all comes together and people understand their cultural heritage. And you can see it in their eyes.