IDAHO FALLS — Many east Idahoans have visited the Museum of Idaho at least a few times over the decades, but no one has ever seen all the potential it has to offer—until now. After two years of renovations and at least four years of planning, the museum’s staff will once again open the doors to the public and unveil two new exhibits today.
The first exhibit, labeled “The Way Out West,” is a long term addition to the museum, specifically curated to tell the story of eastern Idaho. Many of the artifacts premiered for the opening came from a storage vault housing 25,000 pieces that the museum simply didn’t have space to display until now, according to the museum’s marketing director Deborah Chessey.
“This is our blood, sweat, and tears,” explained museum external affairs director Jeff Carr. “It’s been a lot of work, and it’s been fun to see it come together and have the museum be now twice as big as it’s ever been before.”
“The Way Out West” begins with a massive wall, created by a local Shoshone-Bannock artist, and then opens up into a large gallery that showcases the prehistoric artifacts of the Snake River Plain. From there, as guests move forward through the displays, they also move forward through time in a detailed, interactive look at Idaho’s history.
“We are the front door to Idaho for many, many people who drive up on their way to Yellowstone, and this is the place they stop to learn about Idaho,” Carr said. “In the past, we haven’t had the space to really do justice to Idaho in the way that we would want to… our history is richer and deeper and more interesting than I think most people ever know because a lot of the stories have just never been told before in a public way. So getting to tell those is exciting.”
The artifacts, which range from taxidermied predators to a massive mammoth to an early model home–rigged snowmobile, offer lifelong Idahoans a fresh perspective on the state they call home.
“A lot of us who work here at the museum grew up [in Idaho Falls], and we’re really proud because we love Idaho history,” said Carr. “Frankly, a lot of people think that East Idaho is not an interesting sort of place, and we aim to disprove that… At the end of the day, I think all of us are excited to show this off to our neighbors, our locals.”
The museum’s curator, Carrie Anderson Athay, echoed Carr’s sentiments and elaborated on the importance of their work.
“We always talk about the significance of the artifact and how you feel this power in an artifact,” Anderson Athay said. “It really can transport you through time or help you see things in a different perspective or help you think about the person who owned that… I think that when you really begin to look at these artifacts and dig a little bit into their stories you see things through a different perspective, and I think that shifting our perspective can be very powerful.”
Expanding people’s awareness and perspective through science and truth is a responsibility the museum’s staff takes seriously. In an upstairs display, an exhibit labeled “A Complex State” examines Idaho’s multi-faceted and at times problematic past.
“We feel like it was our responsibility to talk about some things that are hard to talk about sometimes,” Carr said. “We shouldn’t gloss over the way that certain people in Idaho have been treated in the past, and that’s how we move forward is by learning about some of this.”
The artifacts, each of which highlights a different group of people who have undergone discrimination, tell the stories of Mormon pioneers, Mexican agricultural workers, and Native Americans, among others.
“We’re not political at all,” Carr explained. “In fact museums are, according to a recent study, the number one most trusted source of information in the United States… people expect museums to deliver the truth, and we take our responsibility very seriously.”
Each display features an artifact and poses patrons with a tough question before providing them with an unbiased, science-based response.
“They all ask different questions like, ‘How do I know what I know? These stories that I think of about Idaho, how do I know that and is that really the whole story?’” Carr said. “We sure have put a whole lot of heart and soul into this, and we’re really doing our best to help people come away with a deeper sense of what Idaho is all about, good, bad, and ugly. Mostly good.”
In another tribute to Idahoans, the museum partnered with many regional artists to finish the massive undertaking. “It was such a great exciting thing to be able to partner with local artists to do this,” the museum’s director of programs and engagement Chloe Doucette said. “We have such an incredible collection, and to actually be able to see things with your own eyes as you’re learning about them is such a different experience than reading about them in a book.”
In fact, the closest thing the museum offers to a book is their new, temporary display that at first glance looks like it belongs in a biology class.
“Body Worlds: Animal Inside Out,” housed in the museum’s new wing, presents guests with an inside view of the animal world—literally.
With over 100 specimens on display, Body Worlds uses a process called Plastination that “allows for the permanent preservation of anatomical specimens without the use of glass barriers or formaldehyde,” according to a Museum of Idaho press release.
For the average museum visitor, that means seeing animals stripped of their skins and preserved to reveal “translucent slices, blood vessel configurations, organ configurations, and whole-body plastinates displaying the intricate biology and physiology of some of the world’s most spectacular creatures.”
Guests can expect to encounter a wide range of specimens, including a giraffe, giant squid, ostrich, bull, and even human beings.
Whether patrons come for the temporary exhibit or the permanent display, beginning on January 23, the Museum of Idaho will provide locals and tourists alike with a glimpse inside of animals and a deep dive into the captivating history of the state.
The museum’s Executive Director Karen Baker summed it up.
“We want to make east Idahoans proud,” she said, “and show that our history is richer, deeper, and more interesting than they may have realized.”