The Historical Museum at St. Gertrude is in the final phase of a five-year remodel project. Guiding in this effort have been husband-and-wife historians Keith Petersen and Mary Reed. Both are recipients of Idaho’s Esto Perpetua Award for distinguished service to Idaho history. They have directed an array of history projects around the state. Mary Lorish Jahn is a graphic designer who advised on working with historical photographs and helped with many visual display elements.
What are some of your favorite past projects in relation to preserving history?
Mary R.: I like projects that combine different areas such as history, technology, and art. I undertook several of these while director of the Latah County Historical Society. The Horse Era project combined local history, technology, and artifacts including a harness, saddle, and grooming products. A traveling program took artifacts to local schools and libraries. The project on Moscow’s renowned watercolor artist Alf Dunn began with an oral history. A follow-up exhibit included his paintings and drawings, and stories of student life at the University of Idaho during the 1930s. A project on weddings used local history sources to trace the culture of weddings, and the lives of local people, from the earliest settlers with home weddings and homemade dresses to modern times. We used our historic house, the McConnell Mansion, as the backdrop for local events — a wedding ceremony in the parlor, a bride’s trousseau in the bedroom, and a collation in the dining room, all enhanced by real stories of local people.
Keith: Probably the project that most inspired me to a lifetime exploration of Idaho history came in the 1980s when I spent four years traveling the state on a project to assist museums, libraries, and other organizations better preserve and interpret history. I mean, get paid to travel to every corner of beautiful Idaho? What a nice job. I learned much about the state, and the state of Idaho’s museums. Idaho has more than a hundred museums; I think I’ve visited them all. Whew! But it was a fascinating way to learn history, and the stories that are most important to locals. It was during this time that I first visited St. Gertrude’s.
What were the Museum’s strengths as you saw them coming into this remodel project?
Mary R.: The Historical Museum has an impressive collection of artifacts and photographs. The dedicated and hardworking staff was open to making major changes. Having a skilled woodworker/carpenter like Calvin Bakie on the staff played an essential role in how we were able to undertake the renovations. Annual grants from the Idaho Humanities Council and Idaho State Historical Society provided continuing support, essential for a major renovation like this.
Keith: First, the willingness of the museum staff and sisters to embrace change. That is unusual. Most museums prefer a “this is the way we’ve always done it” approach. It was energizing to work with an organization so eager to consider new ways of doing things. Second, I was attracted by the Monastery story. The significant role the sisters have played in Idaho is, to me, one of the under-told stories of Idaho history. It is gratifying to hear museum visitors now say they come away with an appreciation for this story of faith, determination, and hard work. Finally, the museum’s outstanding collections. St. Gertrude’s has one of the richest artifact collections of any local museum in Idaho, and it is a pleasure to work with it.
Mary J.: Over the years, I have appreciated the wealth of information and artifacts at the Museum. I especially appreciated being able to learn about Camas Prairie history and its fascinating characters.
What were the challenges?
Mary R.: My challenge was beginning without a basic knowledge of the Monastery and Catholicism . I strongly felt it was vital to preserve the balance between history and the sensitivities of the Monastery and sisters.
Keith: We have re-done all the exhibits, creating new galleries — all while keeping the museum open. That has been a challenge for both the staff and visitors. But visitors have been patient, and I think they have enjoyed the “work in progress” nature of the makeover. Like so many museums, St. Gertrude’s has limited storage space. Many of the older exhibits were a bit too cluttered, but what to do with all those artifacts? There was no room in the existing storage area to move them. So we had to innovatively find ways to utilize the sheer volume of the artifacts. We created an “open storage” gallery in the new exhibits. I think visitors enjoy being able to see “behind the scenes” of a museum and what a storage facility looks like. This also fit in well with one of our goals for the makeover, to let people know what it is that a museum does, and how a museum’s professional responsibilities have changed since the 1930s when Sister Alfreda started the museum–when every artifact in a museum collection was on permanent exhibit.
Mary J.: What I appreciated about the Museum was also its biggest challenge. There were so many “things” but no theme or story to tie everything together. Keith Peterson, Mary Reed, Mary Schmidt, and the Museum team have done a fantastic job of creating a series of interconnected exhibits that tell compelling and engaging stories.
What new experiences will Museum guests have once the exhibit is completed?
Mary R.: Visitors will not only learn the rich history of the Monastery and contributions of the sisters, but will learn the history and evolution of the museum. Other experiences will be to learn the history of remarkable people who lived in the region, as well as the history of the area.
Keith: The key word in “history” is “story.” Through storytelling we help people better appreciate the past and contemplate the future. Too many museums are really not much more than antique stores: long lines of artifacts carefully arranged in exhibit case, with labels that might say something like, “Old iron, donated by Grace Smith.” Not much storytelling there. People visit museums because they have the real deal; they have real artifacts from the past. Seeing a real artifact is much more emotionally satisfying than seeing a “virtual” image of an artifact, or reading history in a book. But simply encountering shelves of artifacts does not advance the education needle very far. We’ve attempted to use St. Gertrude’s artifacts to tell stories about how and why the sisters came here and what they did after they arrived; stories of fascinating characters–from Polly Bemis to Bill Wassmuth–who have called this area home; and stories of how and why people settled the region and the changes they brought to the land once they arrived.
Mary J.: For me, a huge transformation has been the addition of exhibits about the Monastery’s history and the stories of the sisters. I’ve learned so much and have been especially touched by the compelling stories of the sisters’ strength, courage, and faith. It’s fascinating to see how everyday objects in the sisters lives help tell the stories. From Sister Alfreda’s sewing basket to the repurposed old wood doors that have been transformed into an exhibit wall, there’s something interesting around every corner.