The public hasn’t had a look inside the Idaho State Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park since the summer of 2014, when it closed for a $17 million renovation and expansion project. Its staff relocated to a temporary home at the former Bureau of Reclamation building on Broadway. Its thousands of artifacts went into storage.
Museum staffers will begin to move back into the expanded building early this fall, and the museum will reopen to visitors in May 2018.
It’s likely the museum will host a week of opening festivities.
“There will be too much going on to fit into one opening day,” said Janet Gallimore, executive director of the Idaho State Historical Society.
Originally, staff had hoped to reopen to the public at the end of 2017, but the project encountered unexpected delays after the exhibition design company it was working with was sold to a new owner at the end of 2016. The museum had to work with state purchasing guidelines to make sure the transition went smoothly, said Ryan Gerulf, development administrator. The museum got approval from the state to “transition from design to fabrication” at the end of April, said Gallimore. Building the exhibitions will take about a year.
The funds for the building renovation came from the state’s Permanent Building Fund. Then, in 2016, the Legislature approved $4 million for the exhibition fabrication to match $4 million in private donations being raised by the Foundation for Idaho History. The society has raised nearly $3 million of that goal, said Gerulf. It plans to complete the fundraising campaign before the 2018 opening.
The new museum: Here’s what to expect
A lot is new, a lot is familiar: Many parts of the original 1950s-era building will remain intact, including the building’s original facade inside the lobby. The Pioneer Village adjacent to the museum will not change, but the expanded building will have classrooms with doors opening to the village and the landscaped Lewis and Clark Discovery Trail.
“We’re connecting inside with outside,” said Gerulf. The museum’s education specialists are working on educational programs and hands-on activities for visitors.
The stained-glass dome (originally from the lobby of the Owyhee Hotel) that had been installed in the museum’s lobby will be restored and reinstalled in a more prominent space in the museum’s community room. Visitors will find other familiar touches there, including the dark-wood Brunswick bar salvaged from a Downtown Boise saloon and the Cartee piano. Caroline Cartee, daughter of Lafayette Cartee, appointed Idaho’s surveyor general in 1866, bought the piano in New York City and had it shipped to Idaho — the last leg of the journey was by covered wagon.
The space, with its wall of windows looking out onto a landscaped garden and the Boise Art Museum, will be available for public programs like lectures and the museum’s Brown Bag historic lectures. The community room will also be available for public rental.
One of the most frequent inquiries from the public, said Gerulf, has been about the fate of Deja-Moo, the taxidermied two-headed calf that was part of the permanent exhibition for decades. Not to worry. The calf will remain on display in “a special place,” said staffers.
A lot more space for exhibitions: The project will add approximately 16,000 square feet to the museum.
Before construction began, museum staff traveled the state and met with representatives from Idaho’s native tribes as well as communities throughout the state’s diverse regions. The result is a collection of permanent exhibitions organized around Idaho’s people, its land and the relationship between the two.
Examples include “Origins,” the first exhibition space visitors will encounter, devoted to Idaho’s native tribes as well as the very ground we stand on — Idaho’s geology and ecosystems. “Idaho: The Land and its People” will tell the story of Idaho’s three geographic regions.
“Lakes and Forests, North Idaho” will explore mining, lumber and transportation; “Mountains and Rivers, Central Idaho” will cover recreation as well as endangered species and the establishment of Idaho’s wilderness areas; and “Deserts and Canyons, South Idaho” will look at the challenges of growing crops without much water, the iconic Oregon Trail and more modern parts of the Idaho story, such as the Idaho National Laboratory.
A visit to the new museum will be “immersive,” said Gallimore. “Everything in the exhibitions is purposeful, informed by data, by history, by experts, and by the community.”
More interactivity: One of the most striking differences between the old museum exhibits and the new will be the new media and interactive technology that will be included in each part of the permanent exhibition, said Gerulf.
While exhibitions will include physical artifacts in the museum tradition, they also will include interactive maps with touch screens, videos, interactive quiz games — including one on Idaho’s agricultural bounty — and more. For example, in the “Big Burn Experience,” part of the North Idaho forest exhibit, viewers will hear the sound of a wildfire and feel real heat. In the river section of the Central Idaho exhibit, visitors will be able to sit in a Salmon River scow, a thick, flat-bottomed boat often used to haul freight. A Shoshone Falls interactive video exhibit in the South Idaho setup will let visitors turn the falls on and off by operating a real valve and then watch the effects of water, or lack of water, on screen through a video animation.
“It’s a simple and easy way to explain cause and effect,” said Gerulf.
An exhibition called “Boomtown” will let young visitors role play and imagine what it was like to be an early Idaho miner, or blacksmith, or work in another frontier profession.
“Stories from Idaho” will detail the lives of around 30 notable Idahoans from a range of ethnic backgrounds, life experiences and time periods. Idaho Gov. Moses Alexander and Mako Nakagawa, a human rights advocate who was incarcerated as a 5-year-old at the Minidoka camp after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, are among those featured. The “History Lab” includes hands-on activities for all ages, like designing a new house based on historic design principles, and working with primary sources to learn to date photographs or piece together historic narratives as a historian might.
A chance to see more of the museum’s considerable collection: In addition to the permanent exhibitions, the expanded museum will include more room to show off its approximately 250,000 artifacts through a rotating series of exhibitions. The first exhibition, inspired by a similar exhibition at the Smithsonian, will take advantage of Idaho’s extensive, but sometimes under-the-radar, textile collection to feature inaugural gowns worn by the wives of Idaho governors, as well as some of the governors’ own inaugural garb.
On a related note, the museum has partnered with the Idaho Virtualization Lab at the Idaho Museum of Natural History to create an interactive online gallery that will go live in time for the reopening featuring more than 50 items from the state textile collection. Viewers will be able to do something called “deep zoom” to inspect the most intricate parts — stitch work, beading, lace or other details — of historic garments.
Being at the heart of an epicenter of Idaho culture: The museum’s physical location, in a historic park in the heart of the city, is unique among the nation’s 50 state museums, said Gallimore.
“This is almost like Idaho’s Central Park,” she said. “We’re one of the few state museums in the country where you have the viewshed of the state Capitol.”
In addition, the museum is a short walk from many of the city’s cultural and educational amenities, including the Boise Art Museum, the main branch of Boise Public Library, the Wassmuth Human Rights Education Center and accompanying Anne Frank Memorial, as well as the Idaho Black History Museum, Boise State University and the Discovery Center of Idaho. Zoo Boise, also a short walk away, will soon begin its own expansion. The museum’s home, Julia Davis Park, has been undergoing restoration of its own, including the installation of the Rotary Grand Plaza and other new projects.
The expanded museum will be a “new platform for Idaho history” as well as educational programs and dialogue with nearby institutions, said Gallimore.
“We can use the context of history as a tool. Because history is art, it’s the tribal story. It’s mining. It’s engineering. It’s math. It’s all integrated.”
Visit the Idaho State Historical Museum’s temporary home
A small number of exhibitions are open in the Bureau of Reclamation Building, 214 Broadway Ave. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. 208-334-2120.