Idaho’s history museum closed 4 years ago and will finally reopen. What took so long?

Here is a look at the expanded Idaho State Historical Museum

The Idaho State Historical Museum closed in August 2014. It’s scheduled to reopen Oct. 12, following an upgrade that added 18,000 square feet to the 30,000-square-foot building. A bid problem caused the project to take a year longer than planned.
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The Idaho State Historical Museum closed in August 2014. It’s scheduled to reopen Oct. 12, following an upgrade that added 18,000 square feet to the 30,000-square-foot building. A bid problem caused the project to take a year longer than planned.

When the Idaho State Historical Museum reopens this fall in Julia Davis Park, it will have a shorter name and a bigger building. Idahoans will get a chance to be wowed by new, interactive displays.

They will have waited four years. That’s how long the museum has been closed.

If Albertsons could begin work on its new Broadway Avenue store in June 2017 and have its new, fancier replacement open 13 months later, why is it taking from August 2014 until October 2018 for the state to expand and renovate the museum?

Blame bureaucracy. And the booming economy. And the higher construction costs the boom hath wrought. And the sheer complexity of creating new exhibits.

From the start, museum officials expected the project to take time. They planned three years, with a reopening in 2017 with “Historical” dropped from the name. Today, “we are a year behind what we had planned,” said Janet Gallimore, executive director of the Idaho State Historical Society. That’s not a society but the state agency that runs what will now be called the Idaho State Museum.

Delays R Us

Delays are a part of the museum’s legacy.

Work on the original building began in April 1941, after the Depression-era Works Progress Administration provided $105,000. By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that December, only the basement was finished. The museum wasn’t completed until 1950.

In 1980, a new wing was added. That took three years.

Early this decade, officials spent several years asking lawmakers to fund the museum expansion. The displays from the 1980s had become dated.

The museum sought input from educators, tribal members and other Idahoans. More than 700 people took part in focus groups. People told executives the museum needed to showcase the history of the entire state, not just Boise and the Treasure Valley. They said the museum needed to incorporate modern technology.

About a quarter of visitors were students, mostly fourth-graders who visited as part of their social studies curriculum. In the last year before the museum closed, students made up 9,900 of the 39,600 visitors.

“Ninety-six percent of our teachers marked that it was “important” or “very important” that students have an emotional as well as an intellectual experience at the museum,” Gallimore said. “And they can’t do that in the classroom.”

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The stained glass dome from the old Owyhee hotel, which dates from 1909, has been incorporated into the design of the expanded Idaho State Museum in Boise. The dome was first brought to the museum as part of the 1980 upgrade, the last time the museum was renovated. Provided by the Idaho State Museum

Then the bids came in

The Legislature finally appropriated money in 2014 for a smaller expansion than originally envisioned: an addition of 18,000 square feet to the 30,000-square-foot building. The museum closed that summer.

But Boise had moved past the Great Recession, and construction costs were rising fast. In summer 2015, 10 contractors bid on the construction contract. Each contractor bid higher than the $5.5 million budget set by the Idaho Division of Public Works. All 10 were rejected.

In May 2016, after a second round of bids, Barry Hayes Construction of Idaho Falls won the contract for $7.6 million.

The state provided $9.1 million for the building and infrastructure, plus $4 million to match $4 million in private donations for exhibits and related needs. Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Humanities provided $400,000 for an exhibit on the state’s five federally recognized Native American tribes.

The project was complex, Gallimore said. It involved the design of a new entrance and lobby, while retaining the art-deco facade of the old entrance and enlarging the exhibit space.

At the same time, a plan had to be developed for the exhibits themselves and what to portray.

The Nassal Co., of Orlando, Florida, is building the displays. It is making the exhibits in California and Florida, and they have taken longer than anticipated. A collaborative effort to design displays before fabrication led to some delay.

School visits will triple, projection says

When the museum closed in 2014, it attracted about 39,000 visitors annually. Forty-five percent were Idahoans not in school groups, 25 percent were students and 30 percent tourists.

Gallimore projects the upgraded museum will attract 117,000 visitors the first year, with 55 percent from Idaho, 25 percent tourists and 20 percent school groups. The museum projects 19,000 to 23,000 students annually.

If those projections seem optimistic, Gallimore contends they’re realistic: They are based on conversations with other museums that have upgraded and on a business plan developed by a consultant.

The Legislature approved hiring a new business manager, a marketing manager, two customer service representatives, a volunteer coordinator, four part-time front-desk clerks and four part-time weekend event workers. That means the museum will employ 12 full-time and eight part-time employees.

Reopening this fall

The museum is scheduled to reopen Friday, Oct. 12. Admission will cost $10 for adults, up from $7. Seniors, students and veterans will be admitted for $8, with younger children charged $5. Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers asked the museum, which has an annual budget of $1.2 million, to be as self-sustaining as possible.

It will have 800 photographs, 500 artifacts and more than 30 multimedia displays. Among them is an exhibit on the 1910 “Big Burn” in Northern Idaho that killed nearly 90 people. Visitors will feel the fire’s heat coming off the exhibit. Another exhibit will take visitors on a trip on the Salmon River.

Gallimore said visitors will be pleased.

“A museum can provide that ‘aha’ moment that many of us remember the first time we visited a museum,” Gallimore said. “We think we have that here.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell.