The drawers are full of birds, and they have tigers in the closet.

No kidding.

Just three profiles into this Off Limits series, and I wish I had a nickel for every time I've said, "Whoa!" I'd have five bucks, just from the basement of the Putnam Museum in Davenport.

Most of us probably assumed the Putnam maintains more artifacts than they have on exhibit. But a total of 250,000 treasures?

A quarter-million artifacts seems like a lot, and it is. But consider the Putnam has been around for 150 years and has, for that century-and-a-half, been the go-to depository for historic, valuable and otherwise important donations and bequests.

Let's get specific: In a floor-to-ceiling row of cabinets the size of pool tables rests much of the museum's collection of taxidermy birds. It's a little weird at first, pulling open a drawer and finding a dozen beautifully preserved birds. But I could have done it all day.

Above the cabinets, in a mezzanine-like area, ducks and birds too big for the drawers are perched on every available surface. From behind their plastic coverings, the big birds stared down at us like we were prey.

"We're on the flyway, so we have a big bird collection," said Chris Chandler, curator of natural history and one of our tour guides.

As a hopeless claustrophobe, I had worries about being in a basement with so many narrow walkways and locked doors, combined with my hot flashes every 20 minutes. But the packed-yet-sprawling museum basement had my brain so fully engaged, it didn't occur to me to panic.

The only pang of anxiety came from a fear of missing something. It was instantly obvious that even a several-hour tour wouldn't be enough to see it all.

Some of what we saw

Before moving on from the birds, it's important to note the stuffed flock is estimated to contain 1,000 species. Many of them are gone forever and can be seen only in museums. Collections like the especially vast one at the Putnam are documenting the species loss.

On a brighter note, many students and artists and bird enthusiasts are permitted to photograph and measure them for their purposes.

"C.A. Ficke traveled and sent back many of our foreign birds," said curator of history and anthropology and our co-guide, Chris Kastell. "He wasn't a shooter. He wouldn't have killed them.

"When traveling, he took out advertisements, announcing what birds he was hoping to take back."

And here's an interesting factoid: The Putnam does not use pesticides. So, pest inspectors must be deployed on the grounds monthly.

For this reason, the birds and ducks all are stored in standing position on top of white shelf paper. That way, potentially harmful insects are easier to spot.

Of course, where there are birds and ducks, there are bird and duck eggs — thousands of them. They are stored primarily in Ziploc bags and Tupperware containers in special cabinets "that cost a fortune," Chandler said.

Adding to the menagerie is a number of much larger creatures, which share a storeroom with the birds and ducks. Among them: a baboon, mountain lion, crocodile and jaguar. They share mezzanine space with the large birds and — get this — clothing dating back to the early 1800s.

"Taxidermy and textiles have similar storage issues, so they share space," Chandler said.

Shrunken heads with an attitude

I regret that I cannot better explain the basement layout. I don't know how we got from birds to clay pots and shrunken heads and a Civil War rifle, but there we were.

The shelving reminded me of a library in that it is tall and organized and goes on and on.

With curators Kastell and Chandler, photographer Kevin Schmidt rounded out our foursome, and I noticed that he was overwhelmed, too. We'd try to keep moving along, but we would make it just a few steps before one of us threw up a hand, pointed at something and, like children at the zoo, demanded, "What's THAT?"

If we were annoying, our kind curators did not let on.

"Those stone tools were made by Neanderthal and early man 100,000 years ago," Kastell said, stopping in front of a shelf.

On another nearby row, I spotted several very expensive-looking silver pieces. Kevin was trying to do some mental math, too, on some of the primitive pottery. It was hard not to notice the considerable value of the things we were seeing. I couldn't begin to guess the millions.

"Monetary value isn't something we think of as curators," Kastell said with no hint in her voice of judging our shallowness. "It's priceless to us, and we only think of value when we place items on loan, because we have to insure it properly."

While the entire collection is protected with multiple locked doors and motion-detecting security cameras, some areas get even greater layers of protection.

Regarded "National Treasures," the Putnam owns four Head Pots, which are pieces of pottery with portraits painted on them, resembling the person with whom they were buried. Only 500 are known to exist.

In another shelf row, we spotted an Opiate Jar, carved out of wood in the shape of a skull. It had snakes weaving in and out of its eyes and nose. For some reason, I asked to smell it. (Kastell and I thought we detected a sweet smell.)

There was a mammoth tusk that must have been 8-feet-long and, under it, a taxidermy lobster the size of a carry-on suitcase.

This stuff was everywhere. Every. Where.

A few shelves away, our fascinated eyes fell upon shrunken heads. I asked about the process for shrinking heads, and my notes say something about "tanning leather" and "hot water and sand," but I was too distracted by something Chandler was saying to get it all down. As she gently turned one of the tiny heads, she remarked, "No matter how you turn them, they end up turned away from one another; something about being stuck together in eternity, I guess."

Whoa. Gimme another nickel.

A curator's favorites

It was pleasingly obvious to Kevin and me when one of the curators had a particular soft spot for a piece in the collection.

The first such example was Kastell's favor for a Civil War firearm. I was looking at the (President) LBJ cigars and Barry Goldwater pins on a political memorabilia shelf when I noticed Kastell pulling on her white gloves and picking up a rifle.

"I always like to show this one, because it was collected from the battlefield in Virginia," she said. "It was donated in 1867, our first year. You can see how it's broken. It took so long to load your gun, you just started swinging it."

She kept her white gloves on as she reached into a container on the floor and picked up a doll about the size of a 3-year-old. Girls in the U.S. evidently sent dolls to Japan in the 1920s, and in return, the Japanese made one for every U.S. state (and some extras) in 1927. Iowa's Japanese Friendship Doll is in the Putnam's custody, and local students have been working recently on sending dolls to the same region to continue the goodwill gesture.

We headed out of the shelving area inside "The Cage" and passed some passenger pigeons, which are long extinct and can be found only in museums. Above them, on the mezzanine, we spotted the textiles (clothing) storage and noticed one especially colorful number. It was a paper dress, made in the 1960s by Hallmark, that came with a matching tablecloth and napkins. It was like camouflage for housewives.

We passed a Prohibition-era moonshine still, donated by a family in Silvis, that was in exceptionally fine shape. Members of the family that donated it recently returned to have their pictures taken with it, Kastell said.

Then came one of Kastell's super-duper favorites: A "Winter Count," which is a record-keeping piece, made from a calf's hide, by Native Americans. It's like a census, using hand-painted symbols to record things such as populations and illnesses. Also a Smithsonian National Treasure, the piece's first entries were made more than 200 years ago.

In the same large-but-crammed room, Kevin spotted a birch-bark canoe in the rafters above us. We saw a box made in Boy Scouts and donated by former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. It was marked, "Jimmy Leach."

There was an elaborate contraption for perming hair that I first guessed was a torture device. There was the (Bix) Beiderbecke family piano and the original gold eagle from atop the Davenport courthouse.

Nearby was a "Foot X-ray Machine" from the 1950s that was actually a shoe-store gimmick. Unfortunately, some children suffered radiation-exposure poisoning from the devices.

I stopped on a fairly plain-looking dresser that was about 3-feet-high. When Kastell opened it, Kevin and I both earned another nickel. The inside was gorgeous. Intricate, detailed and covered in gold, the home-model Buddhist shrine had oil lamps suspended from the ceiling and ornamental incense holders and decorative display areas for offerings to Buddha.

But the beauty buzz wouldn't last.

Handing me a white glove, Kastell turned from a shelf with a set of exceedingly heavy slave shackles. She handed them to me, then waited for my response. It was a combination of goosebumps and sadness.

"Connecting on a personal level is vastly different than looking at a picture of it," Kastell said. "That's why museums will never go away."

The shackles, like historical items from the KKK, frequently are donated to the museum anonymously.

And speaking of donors

One of the first questions to come to mind is: Where in the world did all this stuff come?

The answer: All over the place.

Very little of the Putnam's collection was purchased by the museum.

At least four names are associated with big parts of the collection. First, of course, the Putnams. Joseph Duncan (J.D.) Putnam was a young collector and donor, and his mom, Mary Louise Duncan Putnam (Mrs. Charles E. Putnam) was a tireless supporter of the Putnam's predecessor, Davenport Academy of Natural Science. Many family members supported the academy and its collections, and the Putnam name was added to the museum in 1974.

The man credited with developing chiropractic, B.J. Palmer, also was a big contributor to the collection.

Charles A. Ficke, Davenport attorney and former mayor, was a world traveler who collected specifically for the museum. And V.O. Figge, banker and philanthropist, also was a generous supplier of artifacts.

The Ficke, Figge, Putnam and Palmer names are but a few among the many that made important contributions and donations, especially in the early days.

"Only about 2 percent of the population could afford to travel," Kastell said. "They traveled the world and brought back things to share with the 98 percent of people back at home."

Ficke, for instance, traveled to Peru specifically to acquire Nazca pottery. Only a couple of museums had the pottery, and he wanted Davenport to be added to the short list.

The Putnam staff has to be very particular about the treasures they accept as donations. In addition to having limited storage space for the collection, they have to keep track of it all, and they have to make sure the donation is official.

Every single item that is donated gets a proper title. The person making the gift must sign a legal document, transferring title. That way, if a family member later comes back to the Putnam, asking to have previously donated items returned, the Putnam staff produces the title, showing legal ownership. The titles are stored in fireproof cabinets in the museum's upstairs archives.

I don't recall how it came up, but before we left, Kastell and Chandler made a point of taking us upstairs to a closet off the "River, Prairie and People" exhibit.

When they finally figured out what key opened the closet, Kevin and I earned another nickel each.

Directly inside the door was two tigers that once lived at Niabi Zoo. Even from under their plastic covers, the big cats appeared ready to pounce. Sharing the closet was a fur seal, wrapped in a sheet, and a polar bear acquired by V.O. Figge on a trip to Alaska.

They're not yet sure where it will go, but a Davenport company recently donated a Kodiak bear. Given that polar bears now are coming ashore and mating with grizzly bears, it is possible both species one day will be a part of an exhibit on climate change.

The collection is constantly growing. A couple of recent donations include a bride's dress from a same-sex marriage and the heads from a couple of Mallards (hockey) mascots.

Because the Putnam already has such a vast natural-science collection, its future is likely to be in transportation and technology pieces.

"Our future is in condensed storage," Chandler added. "There are ways to make better use of our space, but the cost of new museum storage is jaw dropping."

The tour continues

One whole basement wall contains 20 shelves of Buddy L toys.

Beginning in the early 1920s, Moline manufacturer Fred Lundahl used his Moline Pressed Steel Co., located in East Moline, to make big sturdy toys for his son "Buddy," whose real name was Arthur. The toys were not only popular in their day, but many became highly sought-after collectibles, fetching resale numbers in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Buddy's whole collection, including some of the last toys off the line, now resides in the Putnam basement.

Around a corner, in a concrete space beneath a set of stairs, is a rock and mineral collection containing "pretty much every quartz that ever lived," Chandler said.

We also saw a meteorite made of nickel and iron that must have weighed 25 pounds, despite its comparatively small size.

And, speaking of heavy, an engineer had to be dispatched to the Putnam to make sure some basement shelving could handle the weight of thousands of glass-plate negatives recently donated by a Davenport photo studio. The process of cataloging the content of the negatives is daunting, for sure.

"If anyone wants to donate their time, their children's time and their grandchildren's time, that would be helpful," Chandler only half-joked.

One of many cool things about being a curator in a museum of natural history is that you get to say things like, "This is a molar from a mammoth."

Chandler is of the opinion that a partial mammoth tooth is the first item ever to be recorded at the museum. It is one piece in a collection of mammoth and mastodon bones and teeth. The complete mammoth molar she pulled out of a drawer was the size of a four-slice toaster.

Then there was the furball from a steer — about the size of a baseball. Looking at fossils alone could have (happily) taken all day.

We spent considerably less time with the documents upstairs, but two trips and five hours afforded us a good long look at the Putnam's basement treasures.

Before we left the well-protected paper archive area, Kevin spotted something.

"What's in the safe?" he asked.

"Some jewelry and the Black Hawk Treaty," Kastell replied.

Whoa.

Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com.

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