Meet the Northwest Montana History Museum

Museum at Central School undergoes rebranding in effort to reach broader audiences

By Molly Priddy
Jacob Thomas, Executive Director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, is pictured in front of the museum building in downtown Kalispell on August 28, 2019. The museum, formerly known at the Museum at Central School, is undergoing a full rebranding. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As we go about living our lives in the northwest corner of Montana, we’re actively participating in what will become this region’s history some day.

Our lives are unique, but they also echo the lives of those who lived here before us — we have the same feelings, deal with the same natural elements, and have to figure out how to live together in a valley full of wild beauty and potential for human development.

And while some historical markers are easy to identify — the valley would look much different were it not for the Great Northern Railway laying down tracks, for instance — there are plenty of stories and achievements that aren’t as obvious.

Connecting locals and visitors to the history of Northwest Montana is what the folks at the Museum at Central School have been doing since the old school was saved and converted into a museum. Now, in an effort to make its mission clearer to people who don’t live in Kalispell, the museum is rebranding and will now be known as the Northwest Montana History Museum.

Executive Director Jacob Thomas said the shift will make it more obvious that the building is a museum about the history of Northwest Montana.

“With the growth of the valley, probably half of the people here are unfamiliar with Central School and the efforts to save it. They were either too young or they weren’t here yet,” Thomas said. “But I can see why they named it that way in the 1990s, because it was such a big effort.”

The building was boarded up and threatened with demolition in 1991, but the City of Kalispell saved it for $2.4 million in 1999 and leases it to the Northwest Montana Historical Society. Thomas said the efforts to save the building were historic in their own right, but the name “Museum at Central School” can be confusing for people.

A logging industry exhibit in the Northwest Montana History Museum in downtown Kalispell on August 28, 2019. The museum, formerly known as the Museum at Central School, is undergoing a full rebranding. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For starters, folks have thought the name means it’s a museum commemorating an old school, or that it’s on Central Avenue, or that it’s the same as Central School in Whitefish, now known as Whitefish Middle School. But Thomas was adamant that changing the name would not erase the efforts it took to save the building, and its history is currently the first exhibit visitors encounter as they walk in.

With the name Northwest Montana History Museum, visitors and locals will have a better idea that this building houses the most extensive collection of local history in the area, and has items from the whole corner of the state, not just Kalispell.

“People outside of Kalispell think it’s a museum about Kalispell,” Thomas said. “When really, we collect anything north of Missoula and west of Cut Bank. We have all of that stuff here but no one knows it.”

Thomas said the idea for a new name and brand was already in the works when he was hired as executive director in 2017, and really picked up steam over the last year.

The new logo, which the museum created with the aid of Flathead Valley Community College professor Amber Lawrence and her Desktop Publishing class, will feature the historic colors traders used to mark items from this area, which are now associated with Glacier National Park. The design came from Alli Gagnon, now working at SnowGhost Design in Kalispell.

Courtesy image

“I like the colors, I like that it’s bright and fresh and that it’s descriptive,” Thomas said.

The new name was unveiled to museum members at an open house on Aug. 9, and changes to the building and the museum’s logos will happen in the first couple of weeks in September.

Ideally, the shift will keep the museum in step with the downtown redevelopment of Kalispell’s core area, Thomas said, and continue to reach broader audiences, both the local and visiting kind.

“The first step is getting them in the doors,” Thomas said.

For more information on the Northwest Montana History Museum, visit www.nwmthistory.org or call 406-756-8381.

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