River Museum offers behind-the-scenes tours

For those who have wondered what goes into caring for a catfish or tending to a turtle, National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium staff will show how it’s done.

The Dubuque museum recently started offering paid behind-the-scenes tours for small groups, giving a glimpse into the rooms used to care for the museum’s living collections.

According to Wendy Scardino, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, the tours are a reincarnation of a service that the facility had previously offered in a more limited format.

“We have done behind-the-scenes tours on a case-by-case basis for a number of years, and when (the COVID-19 pandemic) hit, we wanted to find a way to allow families or small groups to still have unique activities,” she said. “This did kind of arise in its new form during COVID as a response to offer an opportunity to families who were perhaps more comfortable in a very small group setting.”

Curator of Living Collections Abby Urban said tour participants can see the museum’s food preparation rooms, veterinary room, water quality monitoring room and even a room that houses the live insects used to feed reptiles and amphibians. They also will visit the area behind the Main Channel Aquarium and help a staff member feed animals within the Main Channel or Backwater Marsh Aquarium.

“The general feedback of people who see this space for the first time is just surprise,” Urban said. “There really is a lot more that goes into caring for a large captive collection like the one we have than people think about. It’s just almost mind-blowing.”

Urban is taking a primary role in leading the tours, although all Living Collections staff are qualified tour guides. So far, the team has led a few mock tours for other River Museum staff, many of whom have also never seen the areas before.

“Even our employees don’t see this space — it’s that unique,” she said.

The 45- to 60-minute tours are available every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. and can be bought online or at the box office. All tours are offered at a flat rate of $120 for a group of up to four guests.

Urban said the tours are ideal for families who choose not to travel during the holidays due to COVID-19 but still want to explore somewhere new.

“This is something you can do close to home in a small group, but it’s unique, it’s surprising, (and) it kind of feels like a trip away from home,” she said. “This really kind of checked all the boxes of what we wanted for our guests, and the feedback we’re getting is this is something people have been wanting to see for quite some time.”

Scardino said that once the pandemic passes, the museum hopes to maintain the tours and eventually expand both the number of them and the amount of people per tour.

“This is something that people have never seen,” Urban said. “Even if you’ve been a member of our facility for years … this would be a totally different side to experiencing the museum and aquarium in a way that you haven’t seen it before.”