Making History: The Reimagined, Renamed Idaho State Museum Showcases New Ways of Telling Idaho's Story 

'It was always important to think about this in the simplest of terms: doing it right.'

With all due respect to the talented men and women of the Idaho State Historical Society, the old Idaho State Historical Museum was... well, not great. Informative? Always. Interesting? Mostly. Engaging? Occasionally. Fun? Well, at least there was that two-headed cow. Even its most ardent admirers had to admit that the museum had seen better days, most of them in the last century—its own history dates back to 1941, and its last renovation was nearly four decades ago.

That was then.

Now, following five years of development and construction, and with a very modern price tag of more than $17 million, a reimagined but modestly renamed Idaho State Museum is ready to make a bit of history. The renovation is the most ambitious state-funded project since a $20 million facelift of the Idaho Capitol in 2010. Idaho media gets its first look at the new museum on Thursday, Sept. 27; a few private previews for key stakeholders and donors will follow, but opening day for the general public is slated for Friday, Oct. 12.

While the new museum has an impressive power grid to manage a head-turning flurry of high-tech displays, some of its electricity can be traced to the thunderbolt that is ISHS Executive Director Janet Gallimore. She's quick to give most of the credit to the scores of historians, curators, designers, architects and artists who helped regenerate the museum into a new, must-see attraction, but Gallimore's own power surge is not to be underestimated.

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"The size of the project was always big, and the challenges continued to grow as time progressed. But it was always important to think about this in the simplest of terms: doing it right," she said. "It's truly about doing it right... doing it right as a process, doing it right as a procedure, as a schedule and getting all of your deliverables right. The real magic? It's about doing it right for the people."

Idaho's Tribes: Honoring the Past, Accentuating the Present

Early in the planning process, ISHS teams partnered with Idaho's five federally recognized tribes in a renewed effort to craft accurate and respectful tribal content for the new museum.

"It was critical that we first received their permission and then their assignment of liaisons to work with us. Then we traveled to each homeland," said Gallimore.

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Working continuously with tribal liaisons, ISHS historians began shaping what Gallimore called "anchor" stories that are a key part of the museum's new focus: "How Idaho's land shaped the people, and the people shaped the land." Those stories help highlight the role that each tribe plays in Idaho's present-day culture.

"It's not our story to tell. It's the tribes' stories. And the tribes have a very impressive partnership amongst themselves. The chairmen get together twice a year to talk about matters that are important to them, and at the beginning of our process, they invited us to one of their tribal chairmen's committee meetings," Gallimore recalled.

The end result was a painstakingly detailed chronicle of each tribe's origin story. With the help of 21st-century craftwork, those tribal stories will come to life in the new museum, employing authentic art, eye-popping animation and tribal narration.

"And this is important: One of the most critical things we learned in our conversations with the tribes was that they didn't want us to leave their stories in the past, as if their stories only include arrows, teepees and people on horses. They want us to share their tribes' value to the state today, particularly in terms of commerce, culture and land stewardship."

In fact, a 2015 focus group, soliciting input from hundreds of Idaho educators and citizens, listed tribal stories as the "highest motivating factor [for] visiting an Idaho museum." That helped ISHS secure a much-need Public Humanities Projects Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help fund the displays, which will include the following exhibitions:

  • A "Tribal Theater," illuminating tribal origin stories in the museum's new Origins gallery.
  • The opportunity for visitors to design and create a parfleche (a Native American garment/blanket traditionally made of buffalo hide).
  • A newly designed introduction to the story of Sacagawea and her role in the Lewis and Clark expedition, plus the story of Wat-Ku-Weis greeting the Lewis and Clark expedition as it entered Nez Perce territory.
  • A contemporary story of how the Coeur d'Alene Tribe helps oversee the health of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
  • A contemporary Shoshone-Bannock story of how the tribe assists in the recovery of Sockeye salmon.
  • A contemporary Shoshone-Paiute story of how the tribe helps protect the Owyhee Canyonlands and other sacred sites in the southwest desert.

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Equally important was the inclusion of harrowing stories of historical and generational trauma inflicted upon the tribes.

"Of course, we absolutely need to tell the story of massacre, dislocation, relocation... all of it," said Gallimore. "It's ultimately important to give the public an understanding and, hopefully, some empathy about that history too."

Part of that will be found in the museum's new section, dubbed "Cultural Conflict," which examines the impact of thousands of Oregon Trail emigrants on tribal homelands, including loss of food sources. It culminates in the Bear River Massacre of 1863, which resulted in the deaths of more Native Americans than any other massacre in the West.

"And all throughout the process of designing all of these exhibits, it was so important for the tribes to tell their own stories," said Gallimore. "Because if that didn't work, it would have been disrespectful."

'We Had to Make Sure Our Exhibits and Building Spoke to One Another'

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Early in the five-year planning process, ISHS staff recognized that all of their new exhibits would need to have plenty to say to the museum's visitors—officials estimate about 117,000 visitors will walk through the doors each year, compared to about 35,000 past annual visitors—but Gallimore said it was also important that the exhibits and actual building talked to one another.

"Not only did we have to marry our hoped-for exhibition designs with fundraising, we had to also marry our proposed building design with the fundraising. So, in a way, we had to make sure our exhibits and building spoke to one another. Sometimes, we would get a proposed exhibit designed and then, whoops, the HVAC system was in the wrong spot. And then we'd have another exhibit in mind and, whoops, the electricity wasn't in the right spot. If you don't marry the exhibit design to the building design, you can get into really big trouble."

Apparently, the exhibits and the building had quite the conversation. The footprint of the old Idaho Historical Museum was nearly 28,000 square feet, and the new Idaho State Museum is approximately 48,000 square feet.

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"You'll remember that the original museum, built in the mid-20th century, was rectangular. Then, in 1980, they wrapped around that building, creating a sort of funny wing in the front," said Gallimore. "That's when Sacagawea was outside, in front of the museum."

For the record, Sacagawea is now inside. Her statue will help greet those entering a new foyer that will also include some of the building's original architecture, plus some of the art deco trim from the original museum's design.

"Our initial plan for the redesign was to peel off that 1980 wraparound from the outside of the building. We started from there. But we ran into other challenges. You may remember that part of the first floor of the museum goes down a half-story, dipping down to a garden level. But we couldn't even that out. We couldn't excavate any further. We needed to get very creative. We were given a certain dollar figure, and it's not as if we could keep coming back and back and back again, asking for more money."

All that said, the new museum is nearly twice as large as the old. More than 8,500 square feet of locally sourced masonry was poured into the new project. Approximately 7,000 square feet of local Table Rock sandstone was chiseled, more than 1,600 gallons of paint were used, and over 8,000 4-by-8-inch sheets of plywood and three tons of metal were hammered into place for the new exhibitions.

click to enlarge Winter recreation is explored in the Central Idaho gallery. - IDAHO STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Idaho State Historical Society
  • Winter recreation is explored in the Central Idaho gallery.

Over $17 million was dedicated to the entire project: about $9 million for the building allocated from the state's Permanent Building Fund and another $8 million for exhibits, split evenly between the Idaho Legislature and private donations. Grants also played a huge role in funding. For example, that NEA grant earmarked for exhibits on Native American tribes totaled $400,000.

"It's overwhelming when you start thinking about millions of dollars. But it's really about a lot of pencil-sharpening," said Gallimore. "Part of our professional team included Mary Ann Arnold, vice chair of the Idaho History capital campaign. She's an engineer, retired from [Morrison-Knudsen Corporation]. Talk about a pencil-sharpener! She always looked at this through the lens of being a fundraiser and an engineer. That way, throughout the entire process, we could tell our donors that the pencils were sharpened on every detail."

click to enlarge Exhibits tells the vibrant history of agriculture in the Idaho Lands and its People exhibit. - IDAHO STATE HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Idaho State Historical Society
  • Exhibits tells the vibrant history of agriculture in the Idaho Lands and its People exhibit.

The Cool Stuff

Another new detail about the Idaho State Museum is that a river runs through it—at least figuratively. Soon after visitors walk through the doors, they'll step onto a beautifully tiled river snaking across the grand foyer.

"The very idea of water in Idaho begins your journey; it connects you to a multimedia river and then it will continue to take you throughout the whole museum," said Gallimore. "Soon after entering, you'll also be greeted by a huge multimedia map of Idaho, inviting you to visit a number of locations. You'll touch your finger to a number of places, and something special will pop up. Up next, you'll enter our Origins exhibit, and that begins our connection to the land. It's a big 'wow.'"

There are plenty more 'wows' for the young and young-at-heart, including:

  • A "Boomtown" exhibit where visitors will don hard hats, step into the mouth of a mineshaft, stock coal into a railroad engine and even shout "Fire in the hole!" as they "detonate" a mine using dynamite.
  • Watching a tiny spark erupt into a blazing wildfire that will ultimately become the Big Burn.
  • "Riding" a chairlift up Bald Mountain in the Central Idaho Gallery.
  • Sitting at a virtual campfire hearing about some of the first efforts to protect Idaho's wilderness.
  • Hopping on a stationary bike and taking a virtual spin through some of the historic neighborhoods of Boise or Pocatello.
  • "Riding" a scow down the Salmon River.

And don't think for a moment that the museum's former No. 1 attraction won't make a return appearance.

"Yes, Deja Moo will be back," said Gallimore.

For the uninitiated, the two-headed calf was born on a Jerome ranch back in the 1950s. Though he/she/they died a few days later, the animal, which has since been dubbed "Deja Moo" was mounted and stuffed, and has been displayed at Idaho's history museum ever since. Tiny, stuffed-animal replicas of Deja Moo have been big sellers in the museum's gift shop for decades.

"You'll see Deja Moo as part of our Boomtown exhibit in something akin to a penny arcade. But Deja Moo needed a haircut. Yes, we spruced it up a bit," said Gallimore.

Also returning to the renovated museum will be a stained-glass dome from the old Owyhee hotel (circa 1909) and the massive C.W. Smith wooden bar (circa the 1880s).

But perhaps the most impressive spot where old meets new will be the museum's Stories from Idaho gallery, where visitors are invited to learn about the lives of some of Idaho's most famous people, including Idaho's first Latino judge, Hon. Judge Sergio Gutierrez, grocery legend Joe Albertson and rock and roller Paul Revere (of The Raiders fame). Visitors will also be invited to chronicle some of their own history. They'll type in their names, pose for photos and choose some personal attributes (i.e. perseverance, creativity, bravery etc.) that define their historical natures. Their images and backstories will then be added to a large and ever-changing photo wall of "famous" Idahoans. As a souvenir, a selfie will be emailed to the visitor's smartphone to capture a bit of their own posterity.

"We all have a story. All of our stories are important," said Gallimore. "I can't wait for that wall to come to life with our visitors' stories. We all matter."

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