Anyone who thinks history is staid, reserved or boring never met Janet Gallimore. Chipper and energetic, this native Chicagoan took over the Idaho Historical Society six years ago and since then has made an effort to bring fun to the equation.
"Why shouldn't history be fun?" she asks. "History is the essence of what people know about our world, culture and community. The boring part comes from a recantation of facts and a sepia-tone view of the world. I think history is far more compelling today."
Gallimore spoke from the latest interactive, hands-on, colorful exhibit at the Idaho Historical Museum for the state's 150th territorial celebration: "Essential Idaho: 150 Things that Make the Gem State Unique."
It offers digestible, bite-sized bits of history organized randomly so you encounter something intriguing at every turn. It's like popcorn - you read one of its 150 fascinating facts and you can't help but want another - from Boise's founding to Idaho's rich fossil history to Kristin Armstrong's 2012 Olympic gold medal victory.
The exhibit marks the statewide territorial sesquicentennial that coincided with the city of Boise's sesquicentennial in 2013. Together they offer a unique platform for history in our community, Gallimore says.
"It's our history that makes each state, each community distinct and gives us identity. It also provides us with an opportunity to reflect and learn, to build our future by allowing us to understand our past."
Gallimore came to Idaho with more than 20 years of experience in the museum world, including work on the Confluence Project, a publicly and privately funded venture that blends culture, history, art and community through the vision of Vietnam War Memorial designer Maya Lin. Lin collaborated with Pacific Northwest tribes, architects and landscape designers to create art installations that explore the intersection of nature and culture at seven points along the Columbia River Basin.
Gallimore's work as the Confluence Project's chief operating officer reinforced her principles of how museums enrich their communities and how vital that engagement is to the life of a cultural organization - whether it's in a building or it's without walls. Coming to Idaho allowed Gallimore to propel the ideas of interdisciplinary, experiential collaboration forward in a tangible way, using history as her medium.
Gallimore has guided the organization through the tough economic downturn and now into its future.
With the opening of new gallery space for the Abraham Lincoln exhibit in November, the project to build the state archive will be complete. Now, the agency plans to renovate and update the Historical Museum building in Julia Davis Park over the next few years. The redesign will include space for classrooms, permanent and traveling exhibits, and community use.
What sparked your interest in history?
When I was 8, my parents took me to the Lake County Museum in Illinois. I remember looking up at gigantic wagons hanging from the ceiling and beautiful Native American artifacts. It was my first museum experience and seeing the original materials really stuck with me. They are the true evidence of our cultural heritage. That's why it's so important to visit museums and see the real thing. There's nothing that can replace it.
What is your favorite overlooked historic Idaho site or item that everyone should know about?
I think the Bear River Massacre site in Southeastern Idaho is one of the most powerful places in the state. It's the site of one of the largest massacres of Native Americans in our history that happened on Jan. 29, 1863. It's a tragic part of Idaho history and not a lot of people know about it now. ... We just got a National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program grant to properly document the site the way it deserves.
What Idahoan in all of history would you most like to dine with?
I would love to meet Emma Edwards Green to hear about how she captured the hearts of the first Legislature. She designed the state seal, and as far as we know, she is the only woman in American history to design a state seal. (Green won a national contest in 1891 with her design that is the centerpiece of the state seal.) It would be a hoot to talk with her to get her perspective from that era. ... She didn't even have the right to vote, but yet she was savvy enough to get this assignment and she was so highly regarded.
What are the lessons you wish Idahoans would learn from history?
That all citizens have a responsibility to understand their country's, state's and community's past so that they can be more effective leaders and participants in the democratic process. Looking back means nothing if you don't use what you learn to change your thinking and make your life, your community and the country better.
What's coming up that you're most excited about?
Definitely the Lincoln Legacy Exhibition in the new gallery at the Idaho State Archives (opening Nov. 19). It's filled with amazing artifacts that were donated by (former state Attorney General and Lt. Gov.) David Leroy and his wife, Nancy, (and) gathered while David researched Lincoln's connection to Idaho. It's really one of the finest collections of Lincoln artifacts in the West, if not the country. People will really understand Lincoln's impact on Idaho and the American West.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The strategy and art of aligning all our businesses - the Idaho State Historical Museum and Old Penitentiary, the State Historic Preservation Office, the Idaho State Archives and Research Center, statewide historic sites and agency administration - (and) promoting them so that the public understands the resources available to them; and integrating history into our daily activities. I want to make history a "need to," not just a "nice to." It's extraordinarily complex.
What are some of your favorite things from the archives?
They really are too numerous to count -I love rare documents like the Idaho Constitution. It's still the document our lawmakers use to run our government, and there's only one, and the document Lincoln signed to appoint William Wallace as Idaho's first territorial governor (in 1863). Senate Bill 7 that created the public library system in Idaho in 1901 is one of my favorites. It looks like a scrapbook project. It's the coolest thing.
What most surprised you about Idaho?
The physical size of the state and the spirit of its people - pride and loyalty are certainly attributes that I have seen clearly demonstrated by Idahoans throughout their history.
What's your favorite place to take out-of-town guests?
Sun Valley. It's an amazingly historic place, but what I love about it so much is it's just stunningly beautiful. It seems magical to me.
What piece of advice helped you the most in your life?
My father - he told me I could be anything I wanted if I worked hard. That's a value I feel strongly about. When I was growing up there wasn't a lot of encouragement for girls to develop a career. He told me, "If you go to college, you can do anything."
What's your guilty pleasure?
Sharing croissants and coffee with my husband every weekend. And listening to the "Twilight" soundtrack. I'm a "Twilight" junkie.