They say a school is the heartbeat of a community and if we are to adhere to that sensible wisdom, then Kalispell’s heartbeat found its rhythm in the fall of 1894.
It was then, five years after Montana became the nation’s 41st state, that Central School was built for $20,000, becoming Kalispell’s first “stone-and-brick” school, according to the Northwest Montana Historical Society’s Executive Director Gil Jordan. Before that, wood-frame structures lined the town’s few streets, and kids lacked a centralized school.
In the following decades, Central School housed elementary, middle school, high school and college students at varying times. Flathead Valley Community College used the building as its main campus from 1969 to 1989.
“When locals decided to build the first stone-and-brick building in Kalispell, they decided to build a school,” Jordan said.
More than 115 years since completion, the building today is one of Kalispell’s three primary museums, along with the Conrad Mansion and Hockaday Museum of Art and Culture. It seems sensible to honor history in a remnant of history, and that is precisely what the Museum at Central School does with its rotating exhibits focused on Montana and the Flathead.
But if looking back is the museum’s cornerstone, looking forward is its new vision.
Behind the efforts of Jordan and his staff, exhibit designer John Scarkino, and a dedicated team of volunteers, the Museum at Central School is incorporating a series of “new-school,” interactive features in its display rooms – less clutter, more stylish presentations with high-quality panels and the arrival of the digital age.
An audio-visual unit with a monitor has been installed in the “Flathead Valley History” exhibition and another is on the way. The current unit takes museum visitors on an interactive tour through Flathead Valley from prehistory to 1880. The second unit will take people from 1880 to the present.
Jordan, who has been the museum director since 2005, hopes the new features will attract more visitors and help spread the word about the museum’s offerings. Despite having been in the same downtown location at 124 Second Avenue East since opening in 1999, the Museum at Central School is off a lot of people’s radar, Jordan said.
“Our No. 1 problem is that people don’t know we’re here,” Jordan said.
Essential to the museum’s vision are the conceptual skills of Scarkino, whose lengthy resume includes album cover designs for the Carpenters, Frank Zappa and Neil Diamond. He once ran an 18-employee company in Los Angeles, but today is content with helping to usher in a new age at the museum.
Thus far, the biggest changes have occurred in the Flathead Valley exhibit upstairs at the museum, but more are on the way elsewhere. Standing in an exhibition room on the main level, Scarkino pointed out the differences between the traditional display methods and the new ways.
“These are the old school and they have served the community well,” Scarkino said. “But what you see upstairs is the first effort to incorporate new technology. It walks you through history.”
Scarkino started working at the museum through a program called Experience Works, which is aimed at providing employment for seniors. He said it “was supposed to be a 90-day program and I’ve been here for three years.” At $8 an hour, Scarkino views his job as part of an important community endeavor, rather than a way to pad the wallet.
“I don’t work for the big bucks,” he said. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of a job well done.”
The big changes extend beyond the exhibit rooms and into the way day-to-day business is conducted at the museum. Mounds of photos are being pulled out of storage for archiving, filing systems are improving and computers are more utilized than ever. It’s a matter of streamlining history’s path from storage rooms into the realm of public knowledge.
“These photos were just all over the place upstairs in storage,” said Bruce Ruby, who has been painstakingly archiving the museum’s entire photography collection.
Tempering the progress of this transitional period is the reality of recession. Donations have dried up in some cases and the world of grants is as uncertain as ever. Jordan said he applied for $86,000 from the state to fix a leaky roof and old gutters. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer recently announced a hold on $3.6 million in funding for historical preservation projects because of budget woes.
“Instead of that, I have a call into a roofer,” Jordan said. “In other words, we’ll have to do it ourselves piecemeal because we don’t have $86,000.”
Even with the recession, the museum has continued the steady growth that began when it opened in 1999. In the past few years alone, membership has grown from 425 to nearly 800. Members pay dues that help fund the museum’s operation.
Volunteer numbers are also up, having grown from about 30 to more than 80 in recent years. With the help of volunteers and donations, the museum has been able to stay in the black.
“Volunteers are so important to the museum,” Scarkino said.
Thousands of people tour the museum annually, the lion’s share coming in the summer. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and free for kids 12 and under, students and members. The museum works closely with local schools and each year more than 3,000 students take free tours.
But museum tours “are only a very small part of what we do here,” Jordan said. Hosting events, renting out rooms in the large building and providing other community services take up much of employees’ and volunteers’ time.
Increasingly, Jordan said, people go to the museum’s staff to learn more about the history of the business they own or their own family tree. The museum has extensive paper and photo archives.
“People come in to find about the valley’s history and their own history,” Jordan said.
Admission fees bring in a degree of funding, as do membership fees, but large donations are the big money sources, Jordan said. Grants, when they can be obtained, are also vital, though they are usually specified for certain projects, not day-to-day operations. Small, local foundations have been vital.
Exhibit space accounts for only 20 percent of Central School’s 20,000 square feet, and about 5,000 square feet is storage space for collections. The rest of the four-story building consists of a gift shop and bookstore, a workroom, staff offices, other necessities and rental space.
The rental and reception spaces are used frequently for events, including a book club, a popular historic film club, various workshops, the John White lecture series, weddings and more. In 2009, a total of 221 events were attended by 9,153 people, not counting people visiting the exhibits.
Scarkino and the rest of the museum crew will continue to fine-tune the “Flathead Valley History” and “Wild Montana” natural history exhibits. In the face of economic stagnancy, Scarkino’s eyes are fixed firmly on moving forward.
“If the funding were available,” Scarkino said, “I’d have enough work to keep me busy for the next 10 years. And that would be great.”
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