The Montana Historical Society is packing up to make way for a new museum

Eve Byron jokingly compares it to moving house – on steroids.

For nearly a year, Montana Historical Society staff have packed away nearly 60,000 artifacts in preparation for the 66,000-square-foot expansion of the current facility.

The Montana Historical Society is packing up

Dan Karalus, librarian for the Montana Historical Society’s research center, packs items from the research center at the museum on Tuesday.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record

Boxes, full and empty, are scattered around the current building to be renovated. Cabinets and other items are marked as to whether they will remain on site or be temporarily moved.

The $81 million Montana Heritage Center at 225 Roberts St., expected to open in late 2024 or early 2025, will feature expanded galleries to allow visitors to see more of the art and artifacts created by the Montana Historical Society held in trust. There are also conference rooms for up to 300 people and a public café.

Byron, the Montana Historical Society’s public information officer, said Tuesday the items are being moved off the premises, where they will remain for nearly two years.

People also read…

Administration and other employees, their desks, computers, wiring and other essentials will be moved to a government building at 910 Helena Ave. misplaced, she said. The move will begin in March and will be done in phases.

But not everyone and everything will be moving, Byron said, adding that the museum and gallery staff will remain on-site and work on the new building’s exhibitions and design.

“We have outside help, but we know the collections best,” she said.

Byron called the temporary move and packing a “daunting task.”

“If you’ve ever cleaned out your parents’ house…” she said.

The Montana Historical Society is packing up

Books from the Montana Historical Society research library are packed Tuesday.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record

The museum closed four of its galleries at the end of December and plans to use the space for storage during the renovation. Some of the new galleries will be expanded to three times their current size.

And last week, the Historical Society announced that it is loaning 20 Charles M. Russell paintings to the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls as the Helena Museum undergoes renovations.

Kendra Newhall, a senior registrar, said she had been preparing for the move for almost two years.

“It’s a long and difficult process,” she said while standing next to a cannon, half a ship’s helm, and some sort of kitchen utensil. “It needs a lot of time.”

When asked if she sees any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of packing, Newhall said: “Some days it’s terribly overcast.”

Byron said some of the items were too large and fragile to move.

The Montana Historical Society is packing up

Artwork and artifacts from the Montana Historical Society collection will be stored while construction of the new Montana Heritage Center continues.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record

She said Big Medicine, the mounted white buffalo, which is located next to the reference center on the second floor, will remain in the museum during the renovations.

The Board of Trustees of the Montana Historical Society voted unanimously in October to return Big Medicine, which has been part of the museum since 1961, to the Confederate Salish Kootenai tribe.

The tribe demanded the return of the buffalo, saying it was taken from their land in the National Bison Range on the Flathead Indian Reservation. There are plans to build a cultural center and exhibit him there.

“We want to minimize Big Medicine’s move as much as possible,” Byron said, adding that an enclosure would be built around it.

Byron said the contractor is expected to soon tear down the wall separating the 66,000-square-foot addition from the current building.

The current 70 year old building is also being renovated with new classrooms and expanded galleries and a research center.

Groundbreaking for the center took place in September 2020 after almost 15 years of trying to build a new facility. Officials have argued that the current museum is outdated and does not have enough space to display the state’s extensive collections. Designed by architects Cushing Terrell and built by Sletten Construction, it is expected to attract 78,000 more visitors annually and generate $7.5 million more in annual tourist spending.

Associate Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.