Museum of Idaho launches major expansion and renovation in Idaho Falls

Teya Vitu//August 16, 2018

Museum of Idaho launches major expansion and renovation in Idaho Falls

Teya Vitu//August 16, 2018

Demolition of the education center in July started the expansion work for the Museum of Idaho (rear) in Idaho Falls. Photo courtesy of Museum of Idaho.

The Museum of Idaho became a downtown Idaho Falls showpiece in 2003 when an expansive, rounded glass façade tied together the 1916 Carnegie Library and the similarly aged Masonic Lodge nearby.

For the past 15 years, though, the museum’s interior has shown two historic buildings awkwardly stitched together with new exhibit space between them.

The 33,000-square-foot museum has to shut down entirely for six to 10 weeks any time a new exhibition is staged because loading and unloading needs to be done through the museum. A $5 million expansion that started in July will enable the museum to remain open all the time.

The museum will add a 20,719-square-foot structure that would include a 15,401-square-foot exhibition hall dedicated to traveling shows. That space can be loaded and unloaded without having an impact on the rest of the museum.

The Museum of Idaho needs more space.  File photo.

“We see this expansion as contributing to the long-term sustainability of the museum,” said Jeff Carr, the museum’s public relations director.

MOI is building the expansion on the parking lot next to the Masonic Lodge. Construction started in July with the demolition of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken on that lot that had served as the museum’s Maeck Education Center. The center will be relocated into the museum’s Masonic Lodge building.

The north wall of the Masonic Lodge will be torn down to attach the expansion, Carr said.

“Then we close off much of the existing museum for internal modifications,” Carr said. “That puts us into spring-summer 2020. The idea is to have the current space of the museum flow better.”

The expansion should open in late summer or early fall 2019. Carr said backers raised $4 million for the construction, including a 3-to-1 match of a $500,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant with $1.5 million raised by the museum, a $1 million gift from the Margaret and Wendell Petty Family, a sizeable undisclosed donation from the William J & Shirley A. Maeck Family Foundation and money from the museum’s sustainability fund.

Alderson Karst & Mitro Architects of Idaho Falls is the architect. Bateman-Hall Construction is the construction manager/general contractor.

Museum of Idaho buys office building

The Museum of Idaho bought an office building behind the museum to house its Wasden Collection of fossils and serve as a research center. Photo by Teya Vitu.

The museum on May 1 bought a one-story, 5,523-square-foot office building for $375,000 behind the museum and across the street.  The building already houses the museum’s recently acquired Wasden Collection of more than 80,000 artifacts unearthed from a cave west of Idaho Falls, and the building also serves as a research center.

The office building comes with 40 parking spaces that replace the parking lost with the expansion; the museum will have 95 parking spaces when the work is completed.

Once the expansion is complete, the existing museum will be renovated as a roughly 10,000-square-foot permanent exhibit called “The Way Out West.”

“Right now, we do not have a comprehensive look at Idaho history,” Carr said. “In the past, we were constricted by space. At present, it’s a mish-mash of things. Our team are in the process now of designing the ideas and what the space of The Way Out West will look like.”

The museum is also working with the community on exhibit planning.

The museum will become much more of a visitor attraction without the extended closures a few times a year, said Catherine Smith, executive director of the Idaho Falls Development Corp, which advances downtown as center for commerce, culture and leisure activities.

“It really turns it into a destination,” Smith said. “It will be accessible all the time. There are those hit and miss times now. It creates a sense of a place you don’t need to seek out.”

The Museum of Idaho expansion (left) will attach to the museum’s Masonic Lodge building. Image courtesy of Museum of Idaho.

The Way Out West exhibit will have seven subject areas: geology; pre-history; resources and industry;  people and culture; Idaho statehood; Bonneville beginnings; and Idaho impact on the rest of the world, specifically the Idaho National Laboratory, headquartered in Idaho Falls.

“Our focus is going to be on eastern Idaho,” Carr said. “(But) we have a duty to represent the state as a whole.”

The Museum of Idaho expansion is starting as Idaho State Museum puts the finishing touches on its $17 million renovation and expansion. The Museum of Idaho expects to achieve accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums about 18 months after the expansion and renovation is complete in 2020, said Carrie Anderson Athay, the museum curator.

This entails having 80 to 90 percent of the museum’s collection accounted for and having a collection management plan in place, Athay said.

Idaho has five institutions accredited by the American Alliance of Museums: the Idaho State Museum in Boise; the Idaho Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University in Pocatello; the Boise Art Museum; The Herrett Center for Arts and Science at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls; and the Sun Valley Center for the Arts Sun Valley.

Wasden fossil collection

Museum of Idaho curator Carrie Anderson Athay examines a fossil in the Wasden colllection recently donated to the museum. Photo by Teya Vitu.

The new Way Out West permanent exhibition at the Museum of Idaho will substantially upgrade the museum’s pre-Columbian section with its recent acquisition of the Wasden fossil collection, which includes more than 80,000 artifacts.

The collection, now stored in more than 300 boxes, has sat mostly unstudied since the 1970s at Idaho State University. The the boxes were transported to the Museum of Idaho in mid-June.

“This is the jumping off point for Way Out West,” said museum Curator Carrie Anderson Athay. “This is our largest collection of artifacts.”

Archaeologists from ISU and the Upper Snake River Prehistoric Society unearthed the artifacts in the 1960s and 1970s on property owned by Leonard Wasden and his brother-in-law Kenneth Huskinson. The Wasden family retained ownership of the artifacts until donating them to the Museum of Idaho this year.

“Probably six months ago they came to me looking for a permanent location,” Athay said. “It was very quick. It’s an amazing donation.”

The Wasden Collection comes from a cave west of Idaho Falls thickly piled with animal fossils and human artifacts, she said.

“It was a kill site,” Athay said. “They would drive (animals) into the caves. These are some of the earliest artifacts of human interaction (with big game).”

The collection includes mounds of bison and mammoth fossils as well as beads, snare traps and projectile points. The cave had artifacts from 14,000 years ago to a few hundred years ago.

“We have ancient camel and also modern horse,” she said.

The Wasden collection is housed in an office building behind the Museum of Idaho that the museum bought in May. The museum plans to turn the building into a collection and research center for scholars.

Naming rights for the building are available for a $500,000 donation to the Museum of Idaho.