Some are tried and true crowd favorites.
Some will be displayed before Idahoans for the first time.
But all 514 artifacts that shape the stories the new Idaho State Museum hopes to tell were deliberately chosen for this reason: to tell a story that a text panel on a wall simply could not.
The items on display range from a Jefferson Peace Medal carried across the plains by Lewis and Clark, to the keyboard stand and set list of rock musician Paul Revere. They make up only 1 percent of the 50,000 artifacts that are stored and cared for by the Idaho State Historical Society.
Don’t worry. There weren’t any knock-down, drag-out fights among curators about which items would make up the 80,000 square feet of exhibit space, said Sarah Phillips, curatorial registrar and collections manager.
Instead, she said, each item was carefully selected over a four-year process to tell the stories of Idaho’s past, present and future. More than 100 designers, artisans and craftsmen contributed to the project, and each bust that displays clothing was specifically made for that particular item.
“One of the advantages to the new temporary galleries is that it gives us a chance to rotate our artifacts through like we’ve never been able to do before,” Phillips said.
Liz Hobson, museum administrator, said most people would need about four hours or more to see and read everything in the museum, which opens to the public on Friday.
If you don’t have that kind of time, museum officials have compiled a list of their top 10 favorite, must-see items in the collection. Here’s what they came up with:
1) Two-hide dress — 1800s
Like many of the items in the museum’s collection, some of the details of this two-hide Native American dress, nestled in the Origins Gallery, have been lost to time.
“With a lot of different Native American pieces, unless they come directly from a tribal member, it’s a little bit difficult to place where they’re from,” Phillips said. “We do know from the Plateau tribes, like the Nez Perce, that they made similar fashions.”
She said the dress, a gift from The College of Idaho, stands out because of its remarkable bead work, condition and materials. Two animals, one in the front and one in the back, were used to make the dress. The fur, likely from deer, is still intact, including a visible tail at the throat of the dress.
The colors of the beads — red, white and black on the front and back — and the type of thread used help historians place the dress from the 1800s. If it were any older, the beading material, including the cotton thread that still holds the beads in place, would be different.
“The age and the quality of work is really important,” Phillips said. “A lot of pieces like this don’t last if they’re not preserved.”
2) Claw, hoof, teeth and shell necklace — early 1800s
In the same exhibit case, near the floor-length hem of the two-hide dress, is another Native American piece Phillips said can’t be missed — a large necklace made of claws, hooves, teeth and shells.
Phillips said the necklace could have been worn purely for adornment, making it special. Tradition has it that the piece was owned by Nez Perce leader Apash Wyakaikt. Wyakaikt is the son of Chief Looking Glass, who fought in the 1877 Nez Perce War.
“One of the things we really wanted to speak to in this case for this exhibit was the use of materials by all of the different tribes and how they could make those things into beautiful pieces, either for regalia for everyday wear or for ceremonial purposes,” Phillips said.
3) Hunt Party Belongings — 1811
Wilson Price Hunt wasn’t exactly your average mountain man. In fact, he was known more for business acumen than his ability to traverse the wild and gather lucrative beaver pelts.
John Jacob Astor selected Hunt as an agent to travel to St. Louis for the Pacific Fur Company, to lead an 1811 expedition not unlike Lewis and Clark’s from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, according to the Oregon State Historical Society.
“By late September, they had reached the headwaters of the Snake River in present-day Idaho, where they descended in canoes for 200 miles through savage rapids,” the society states in its Oregon Encyclopedia. “The party’s boats were swamped and wrecked, and they lost food and supplies.”
Fast forward 127 years, when a fisherman near Twin Falls discovered something extraordinary in 1938. A beaver trap, trade musket stock and a hatchet are among the items from the party recovered near the river, and that now have a home in the museum.
“These were all either covered in mud or in the river for a very long time, so that’s why you see the degradation,” she said.
4) Eliza and Henry Spalding chair and slate — 1836
In 1836, Presbyterian missionaries Eliza and Henry Spalding were among the first white settlers in Idaho, making their home near Lapwai Creek in North Idaho. They are credited with operating Idaho’s first printing press and sawmill, and planting Idaho’s first potatoes.
The items in the museum from the Spaldings include a small chair used by Henry Spalding and a classroom slate used by Eliza Spalding.
Their relationship among the Nez Perce ranged from friendly from tense, but they did bring lasting changes to agricultural practices in the area, Phillips said. Presbyterianism among the Nez Perce remains strong to this day, according to the museum.
“To be able to build homes because you don’t have to constantly be moving for food changed a lot of things,” Phillips said.
5) Idaho State Seal painting — 1891
Paintings old and new line the walls in the museum’s Syringa Gallery, one of the rooms that will allow temporary exhibits.
Among them, in an elaborate gold frame, is a piece of Gem State history almost any Idahoan can immediately recognize: our state seal.
Emma Edwards Green was originally born in California. In 1891, she found herself falling in love with Idaho. The state held a contest for residents to submit drawings for the new state seal, and as someone who had just graduated from art school, Edwards Green submitted her own idea of how Idaho should be represented. She won the contest and $50 for her efforts.
“She wanted to make sure that she represented the wilderness areas, the industry, men, women, all of the different agriculture,” Phillips said. “When you look closely, you can see a lot of the details that she added to it to makes sure it was representative of the entire state.”
Women were still more than 25 years from earning the right to vote nationwide. Edwards Green painted the woman and the man the same size — something fairly unusual for the time.
“That was not always the norm,” Phillips said. “You might see a smaller woman or (a woman) in the background, but this is an open acknowledgment of the same size between the male and the female.”
Edwards Green is the only woman to be credited with designing a state seal to this day.
6) Evidence from Idaho’s Trial of the Century — 1905
When Idaho Gov. Frank Stuenenberg was elected to his second term in 1898, he took office in one of the most tumultuous eras in all of Idaho history.
Miners in North Idaho were in total upheaval, demanding better working conditions instead of facing the constant threat of injury or death every day they went to work.
Stuenenberg declared martial law, calling on President McKinley to send in federal troops to restore order.
“The federal troops arrested a large number of the striking miners and herded them into ‘bull pens,’ which were lacking in proper sanitation, poorly equipped, and caused the miners to become very agitated,” according to Idaho Public Television. “The Western Federation of Miners, a union that represented the striking miners, blamed Steunenberg directly for this humiliation and for the harm to their members.”
In 1905, a bomb concealed in a metal box and triggered by a revolver was set at Stuenenberg’s Caldwell residence. Thanks to the 4th District Court, those items originally used as evidence in Idaho’s Trial of the Century are now on display at the museum.
“It speaks to opinions to labor now,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of anti-labor union sentiment in general, but specifically in Idaho. There are historic roots to that that go back to a specific event that happened in Idaho.”
7) Owyhee Plaza Hotel dome — 1909
More than 900 plates of glass make up the golden dome of the Owyhee Plaza Hotel — one of the most opulent and biggest hotels the Gem State had ever seen when it opened in 1909.
Phillips personally oversaw the dome’s restoration, cleaning and repairing each plate on each side by hand.
“It was a labor of love,” Phillips said. “It is kind of my baby now. It was unusually dirty. I think they had put a shellac overcoat on it to protect the glass, which we don’t need now because it’s not exposed to the elements.”
Friends of the museum will instantly recognize the dome, which was showcased over the original museum’s lobby for years. It now resides in the Idaho Room at the museum, which will be used to host lectures, events and parties.
8) First lady Mary Haines’ gown — 1913
Mary Haines was a bit of a socialite. She liked beautiful things and held lovely parties.
So when she attended the 1913 inauguration of her husband, Idaho Gov. John Haines, she did so with style.
“Mrs. Haines wore an exquisite imported robe of white net embroidered in mauve and cerise chenille roses, with rhinestone centers ... over yellow satin,” the Idaho Statesman reported at the time.
While only scraps of the yellow satin underdress remained, the detailed net embroidery, brooch, shoes and ostrich feather hairpiece all were donated to the historical society in beautiful condition. The gown is one of many featured in a temporary gallery showcasing dresses, tuxedos and other garments that belonged to some of Idaho’s most senior officials throughout the years.
This particular dress cannot be missed because of the painstaking care taken to recreate it, Phillips said.
“She was known for throwing very beautiful parties and elaborate lavish affairs, so we wanted to make sure that as we were building this dress, we did the dress and Mary justice,” she said.
9) First lady Lucille Smylie pink ballgown — 1956
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of History is home to the 100-year-old First Ladies Collection and includes many inaugural gowns from first ladies of the United States. In 1966, Idaho first lady Lucille Smylie was determined to start a similar collection for the Gem State.
Her pink cupcake-style ball gown she wore to her husband’s 1956 inauguration is one way to honor her contributions to the historical society, Phillips said.
“Lucille actually donated this specifically to the Idaho State Historical Society with the hopes that it could set a precedence or trend for all first ladies to donate their inaugural gowns to the historical society to preserve for the future,” Phillips said.
Since then, several first ladies have followed in her clear vinyl pump footsteps, including Grace Jordan and Patricia Kempthorne. All three of first lady Lori Otter’s inaugural gowns are also on display.
10) Déjà Moo — 1950
The final object on our list needs no introduction. The public practically demanded Déjà Moo, a two-headed cow born in 1950 in Gooding, be placed back on exhibit.
The cow’s nose and fur were restored before he — it? they? — was placed into a glass case in the children-friendly Boomtown gallery. The calf has been on display in the museum for decades.
A taxidermist verified the cow was indeed born with two heads, and was not some oddity someone put together on their own, Phillips said.
“One of the things I like to explain to people is that, up until the ’70s or ’80s, a lot of museums had a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ field and didn’t necessarily have a specific collecting mission,” she said. “So anything that was interesting, a museum could take into the collection.”
- 610 Julia Davis Drive
- Open Mondays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open Sundays noon to 5 p.m.
- Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors (60+), $8 for students with IDs, $5 for children, $8 for veterans and free to museum members.
- Opening weekend activities will include tribal and cultural dances, food trucks, potato sack races, guided gallery talks, gold panning and a photo booth on Oct. 13.