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Reimagined Idaho State Museum an interactive feast for the senses

More than just a remodel, the new version of the museum is much bigger and it gives the public a chance to experience Idaho history in an entirely new, modern way.

BOISE — Immersive, interactive and certainly informative, the renovated and reimagined Idaho State Museum in downtown Boise will open to the public in the coming weeks.

The old Idaho State Historical Museum closed four years ago for the $17 million makeover. The massive undertaking ran into some bumps along the way, including a long asbestos abatement project and construction delays due to the heavy snow and ice that socked in the Treasure Valley in early 2017.

It was well worth the wait.

More than just a remodel, the new version of the museum is much bigger and it gives the public a chance to experience Idaho history in an entirely new, modern way.

"There's a great blend of artifacts, graphics, multimedia," said Idaho State Historical Society Director Janet Gallimore. "There's 43 different multimedia elements, and those are really essential for creating a powerful emotional experience."

To make room for planners' grand vision, 18,000 square feet was added to the building, with the new construction wrapping around the original 1950s-era museum and its 1980s remodel.

Credit: Idaho State Historical Society
The Idaho State Historical Museum circa 1950s.
Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
The newly-remodeled Idaho State Museum.

The core philosophy behind the reimagined museum stems from a connection between the state's inhabitants and the land they live on.

"That idea of land and people shaping each other is the anchor story upon which all of the interpretation of the state history exhibits are told," Gallimore said.

Artifacts and a high-tech theater tell the story about the earliest Idahoans. The Idaho State Historical Society worked with each of the federally-recognized tribes to get permission to capture their origin stories, and then used modern multimedia tech to showcase it.

"Some people are audio learners, some people are visual learners, some people like read, some people like manipulate artifacts," Gallimore said. "We wanted to create something that was designed purposefully to create the maximum experience and the maximum learning."

Another section of the museum lets visitors take a tour through, and learn the story of, each of Idaho's distinct regions: North, Central and South.

In the North is a focus on logging and mining. And the centerpiece of the exhibit is a huge projection screen with intense visuals and sound that put you right in the middle of the Big Burn fire of 1910. Adding to the immersion are fans simulating the wind that helped spread the massive blaze over 3 million acres.

"So you get a sense of how terrifying that must have been in the Wallace area and how overwhelming," Gallimore said.

The Central Idaho room highlights the history of the region's recreational opportunities. Visitors can sit on a replica of one of Sun Valley's 1930s-era chairlifts while watching a video on the history of the world-famous resort. The room also includes a fire lookout tower, and provides historical context for modern issues like endangered species and land conservation.

The final regional room showcases the Snake River Plain of southern Idaho - from the early pioneers who traversed the region on the Oregon Trail to the importance of the Snake River and its tributaries on the state's agricultural industry.

Families can enjoy some hands-on learning in the History Lab, while kids and adults alike will enjoy the interactive Boomtown exhibit that lets visitors "blow up" a rock with dynamite, tour a mine and blow a train whistle.

"So you get to go through a series of activities that help you understand something better," Gallimore said.

While history has gone high-tech throughout the remodeled museum, it holds on to an antique aesthetic. More than 500 artifacts are integrated into the three-dozen displays - including a peace medal from the Lewis and Clark Expedition, inaugural ball gowns from Idaho's first ladies, and an iconic car-grille keyboard used by Idaho musician Paul Revere, just to name a few.

Museum officials also made point of bringing back some fan-favorites from the old museum, including "Deja Moo" the two-headed calf, the massive bar dating to 1910, and the dome from the original Owyhee Hotel.

Credit: Tyson Miller/KTVB
The 1910-era bar was one of the most popular displays in the old Idaho Historical Museum, so planners made sure to incorporate it into the newly-renovated museum.

"We understood what people's favorite icons were of the museum," Gallimore said.

Something that didn't come back is the word "Historical" in the museum's name.

"We really wanted to put the emphasis on the word "State," Gallimore said. "And of course everything about this museum relates to Idaho's history, but history is not just social history, it's the history of science, of technology, of language, of art."

Gallimore believes the big changes - both inside and outside - are worth the four-year wait and the $17 million price tag.

"I think it represents the best of doing the right thing and doing it right for Idaho," she said. "And the entire country, I think, will be looking to us as a model."

Of the $17 million, the state provided about $13 million and private donations made up the rest.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Friday, Oct. 12, and the museum will officially open to the public at 11 a.m. that day. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for kids, and $8 for seniors, students and veterans.

Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
The newly-renovated Idaho State Museum opens to the public on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018.

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