River Museum’s Renovated Rivers to the Sea Continues to Inspire One Year Later

Maia Davidson and Chip Murray share a common love: seahorses.

“They are so unique in all of their adaptations,” said Davidson, the Curator of Marine Life and Ambassador Animals at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. “They have eyes that can look in different directions at the same time to track prey but also keep an eye out for predators. The male has a specialized pouch to give birth and can give birth to up to 200 young at a time! Their tail is also a square shape which allows them to have a stronger hold on whatever they grab, which is a good thing, because contrary to what we may think, they aren’t very good swimmers!”

Murray, the former president and CEO of Community Trust Bank, and his wife, Julie, generously supported the seahorse aquarium in the newly-renovated Eckstein Family Rivers to the Sea, Honoring Marquette Maritime Transportation Employees, located in the Diamond Jo National River Center. The six-month renovation, featuring 12 new aquariums, a new touch tank experience, and more than 100 species of marine life, was completed in March 2023.

The Murrays have been long-time supporters of the River Museum and its programming, and for Chip, being able to financially support the exhibit and the organization gives him immense pride.“For the quality of life of the city, we need attractions like this. This is a draw for tourism and great for the local community,” said Murray. “I’ve been involved in a lot of community activities and community boards, and because of that, I’ve always been aware of what is happening in the city. I continue to see tourism becoming more and more important to Dubuque: Dubuque has been adding attractions and bringing more and more people here.”

Murray has served on the Dubuque Country Historical Society Board of Directors since 2015, and since retiring, has enjoyed spending more time at the River Museum. He jumped right in to leading tours for the Viking Cruise Lines during peak riverboat season and frequently stops by the River Museum for a visit.

“There is so much going on at the River Museum that sets us apart from other attractions. I’ve seen aquariums in other parts of the country—ones much larger than the River Museum or in larger cities–and what we have here is every bit as great an experience. I saw leading tours as an opportunity to showcase and educate visitors about the work we are doing here in education, history and conservation.”

Construction for the renovation began in September 2022 to enhance the visitor experience, replace aging tanks, and provide an opportunity to craft inspiring and relevant conservation messaging as a part of the River Museum’s educational offerings. The River Museum worked with multiple local construction, design, and contract partners to complete the project, and floor to ceiling mural work as well as a life-size sculpture was completed by local artist Adam Eikamp.

Much of the guest-facing and behind the scenes work within Rivers to the Sea was done in house by the River Museum’s Living Collections, Exhibits, Education, and Maintenance teams. The staff handled aquarium design, husbandry, plumbing, and water quality testing, and all of it was made possible through the generosity of donors and grantors from throughout the region who gave specifically to see this exhibit come to life.

“So much of this exhibit was done in-house and when you think about the scope of work, it’s truly remarkable,” said Murray. “Having a premier exhibit at the River Museum is important, and having new exhibits and refreshing what is here already is important to keep drawing people here.”

“Every department was involved in some aspect of this project, and we could not have pulled it off without the team’s support,” said Davidson. “We also could not have completed this project without the generosity of donors and organizations. Every donation ensured that we could get the best equipment for our animals. Every time someone told a friend or relative about the project, it created such a buzz in the local community and beyond the Tri-State area, which was exciting.”

Guests enter the exhibit in the Marshall Islands with the story of the Marshallese. Greeted by vibrant, darting fish, including a “smiley” Guineafowl Pufferfish, guests learn of this far away island with a Dubuque connection, unfolding the first chapter of the conservation story told throughout the exhibit. The River Museum’s interpretive team’s goal for the exhibit was to highlight environmental issues in a way to inspire hope while also highlighting conservation work by the River Museum and fellow Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities. It was messaging both Davidson and Murray felt needed to be shared and the positive feedback from guests since the exhibit reopened shows the message is being received.

“All of the stories in Rivers to the Sea are about creating and finding the human connection to our rivers and ultimately to our oceans,” said Davidson. “Our Giant Pacific Octopus came to us through a very reputable, sustainable fishery. This allows us to talk about sustainability in the fish we have as food but also the animals at the River Museum as well. Rivers to the Sea connects states like middle-of-the-country Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Reef Tract and beyond, allowing us to better understand that connection and show guests their decisions here make an impact down river.”

“I enjoy the dedication of the employees—you can tell how much they enjoy working here and support the mission. It’s not just a job but a passion for many of them. We see that in the final result of this exhibit. [Rivers to the Sea] went above my expectations—it is a high-caliber exhibit and the comments from visitors validate that.”

Rivers to the Sea’s renovation came in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Mississippi River Discovery Center and the true beginning of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium as it is known today. As the staff and board of directors look to the next 20 years, there is more room to grow the diversity in the collection, refresh educational spaces, and support telling the story of the River’s rich history and conservation messaging. Beginning in the Spring of 2024, the Mississippi River Discovery Center will undergo it’s first of two phases of construction to enhance the exhibits, starting with an expansion of the North American River Otters’ habitat and followed by a new outdoor Driftless exhibit, an indoor trout stream, and a new conservation area to highlight endangered species.

It took a community to make Rivers to the Sea the success it has been, and the organization looks forward to serving community members and tourists alike while continuing to update its exhibits and inspire stewardship of history and rivers.

“Come visit,” said Davidson. “Yes, we get thousands of families through our doors every year, and we invite you to bring yours. But remember we aren’t just for kids. Come and say ‘wow,’ ‘I had no idea,’ or ‘I want to learn more.’ There are core memories being created here and it’s in our own backyards. This is the community’s River Museum, and it’s the community that enables us to continue to inspire and challenge our guests to learn, explore and have fun!”

The Preserve the Wonder campaign goal is to raise $12.75 million towards newly expanded exhibits, an increase in endowment and an upgrade in maintenance and facilities while providing a more comprehensive approach to history, STEM, and conservation. Those who are interested in donating can visit https://www.rivermuseum.org/preserve-the-wonder.

Weekly Ads

If the ad appears a little fuzzy, just click on it to view the ad.

Click here to view ads as a list.