Way Out West

Museum of Idaho enters a new era with expanded space, permanent exhibit

Published online: Jan 22, 2021 Paul Menser
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How do you go about telling a story about your backyard that spans 15,000 years? That’s the challenge the Museum of Idaho has taken on with its permanent “Way Out West” exhibit.

“We have this incredible collection of artifacts, but haven’t had a place to show them,” said Jeff Carr, MOI’s public relations director. With a new wing built, the problem has been solved. “Way Out West” is the culmination of a capital campaign that has added 19,000 square feet of new space to the complex on Eastern Avenue, as well as an adjacent building for research and storage.

Through artifacts, art and interactive media, “Way Out West” is aimed at explaining southern Idaho from the days of Lake Terreton, when the region was lush and the earliest human inhabitants hunted mammoths and giant bison, to the present day. Collaborators include the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Idaho National Laboratory and a host of other historical and cultural preservation societies around the region.

Originally scheduled to open in mid-December, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the opening date for “Way Out West” has been pushed to Jan. 23, 2021.

The 890 square miles bounded by the INL Site is at the heart of an area rich with archaeological and historical knowledge. With stones and bones, cabins and kilns, even the wreckage of a B-24 bomber that crashed on a training run during World War II, the land holds information from 15,000 years of human occupation and activity.

“Archaeologists have a million stories, and it’s up to the museum staff to pick which ones they want to tell,” said Dr. L. Suzann Henrikson of INL’s Cultural Resources Management Office.

At the end of the ice age, southern Idaho was home to some of the earliest human inhabitants of North America. They hunted huge mammals, and the evidence of those hunts – projectile points scattered across the eastern Snake River Plain – indicate these people were not tethered to any one place. Birch Creek and the Big Lost River may run seasonally today, but were most likely perennial then, Henrikson said.

What makes the story particularly compelling is that these people were most likely the ancestors of the bands of Shoshone and Bannock people who now comprise the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. The tribes have their legends and stories, products of an oral tradition that stretches back centuries. Way Out West gives special focus to the tribes’ rich culture, customs and ingenuity, displaying such tools and beadwork, even a dress made from sagebrush bark.

Eastern Idaho’s story took a turn in the 1800s, first with the arrival of fur traders, then with westbound wagon trains, homesteaders, and irrigation. Not every homesteader who tried to put down roots succeeded, and a display in the old Carnegie Library wing of the museum offers a glimpse into how hard life could be and what got left behind when a homestead failed.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 made federal agencies responsible for managing archaeological resources and historic buildings on federal lands. As the Department of Energy’s contractor, INL is obligated to “protect and preserve,” and any time INL can participate in educating the public it’s fulfilling an important part of the historic preservation mission. This is why INL is an enthusiastic partner in “Way Out West,” Henrikson said. 

Although actual arrowheads and projectile points from DOE’s collection can’t be used in the exhibit – they serve as data points in a scientific endeavor and are too valuable in a sense of the loss of history and footprint of the Shoshone and Bannock people, to be put at risk – INL went to considerable expense to have exact replicas cast. The lab has also contributed photos, even old implements and bottles that, having been removed from their archaeological context, can’t be part of the collection but still shed light on how people lived.

“Way Out West” is anchored in the Carr Atrium by ‘Bia-Dekape’ (meaning ‘big food’ in the Shoshone language, say Bee-aww-Dik-cup), a life-size 14-foot mammoth first unveiled for the “Columbian Mammoth” exhibit in 2003. Made especially for the museum by a Los Angeles film studio, for more than a decade Bia-Dekape has been stashed behind a curtain as other exhibits have come and gone. (Yes, it is possible to hide a mammoth, though not easily.) Now, for maximum effect and context, the beast has been paired with a panoramic decorative metal enclosure designed by local tribal artist, Bailey Dann, a Shoshone-Bannock artist, educator and writer, and fabricated by Majestic Mountain Iron of Tetonia.

“We think of the mammoth as our signature piece. It’s something we’ve been very proud of for a long time,” said Chloe Doucette, the museum’s education director.

Also dominating the room is a cast of a Harlan’s Ground Sloth, a giant animal that lived in eastern Idaho during the ice age (fossil skeletons have been found near American Falls and Swan Valley). The cast was given to the museum by a private donor but loaned for several years to the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello. Now that it has a permanent display space, it has come home.

The Museum of Idaho has worked with the Idaho Museum of Natural History, a state repository for archaeological and paleontological specimens. Coordination has been closer with the agencies that own specimens kept at the IMNH, particularly the Department of Energy, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bureau of Land Management.

About half the visitors to the Museum of Idaho are local, while the rest are from out of state. The out-of-staters come expecting to learn about Idaho. With expanded display and storage space, the museum is poised to do that, reaching out to communities as far north as Salmon and as far south as Burley, said MOI Curator Carrie Anderson Athay.

“We want to know whose stories haven’t been told,” she said. “There are so many different histories from so many different groups. The more we can collect, the more context we have for the whole region.” 

Click here to read more from the January issue of Idaho Falls Magazine.

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