Empty history museum ready for a bright future

February 29, 2012

The Hood River County museum is empty.

Labels sit high on the cinderblock walls, labeling items which are no longer there.

The front door is closed and locked.

But not forever.

In a few months the old bunker-like entrance will be replaced with a wider entrance just a few feet to the west.

Inside the museum, what is currently Museum Director Connie Nice's office will be turned into a display gallery, allowing freeway passers-by to see what the museum is featuring.

Nearby the courtyard will be turned into a two-story gallery space, with the upper wall knocked down.

But all that is yet to come.

For now the inside of the museum sits empty.

The building has been completely cleared out, save for space in the back which has been sealed off with plastic to be used for museum offices.

"We're excited," Nice said while looking around the empty museum interior. "But it is s a little bittersweet."

This week the museum is empty, because next week crews from Payne Construction in Portland will begin work on the museum's phase 1 renovation.

Payne was the low bidder submitted to the county for the museum renovation work, coming in at $310,000.

The county eagerly accepted the bid, considering it had budgeted $350,000 for the project.

The $40,000 difference between the projected and actual bid allowed several items to be put back into the project.

"It's under the budget so it's available," said Dean Guess, director of the county public works department, which includes the museum. "It's absolutely a very good thing."

That includes carpet for the upper level, a wheelchair lift to the upper level and a desk which will serve as both the reception area and checkout area for the museum gift shop.

Nice had been afraid that some of things would have to be left for future phases of the expansion, except for the wheelchair lift, which is necessary to make the building ADA-compliant and would have needed to be fit into the phase one budget.

Two weeks ago, Nice met with Ko-Kwow, an exhibit design company operated by the Coquille Indian Tribe from North Bend, who will be tasked with filling the currently empty space when the renovation project finishes late summer or early autumn.

Nice said that the museum had originally intended to finish the project by July, but has pushed it back to September.

"I wish it were sooner because we are excited to share it," Nice said. "But we'd rather do it right than rush it."

When the current expansion is complete the museum will be open 12 months a year - a big change from the way it currently operates.

Another change will be the interior. The square footage will not change all that much, but the renovations will take what is currently an empty, cold and dark space and brighten and open it up significantly. Nice said the museum will try to find the delicate balance between museum and interpretive center in a way that best tells the history of Hood River County.

The museum is working with the Coquille planners on the best way to do that.

"It will be a comprehensive master plan which allows the museum to move into the future," Nice said.

In the meantime most of the artifacts from the museum are in an off-site storage area. A few have been organized in the back room, which now serves as an artifact sorting area, Nice's office, the office of Education and Volunteer Coordinator Casey Housen, a meeting area and work center for museum volunteers.

"We only broke one thing...a fluorescent light bulb," said Nice of the moving process. "We didn't get rid of anything and we did most of it ourselves."

With all that hard work out of the way, Nice said the next focus is on the fun part, such as figuring out the exhibits and what they should use to replace the carpet, which is over 20 years old.

When they remove the carpet, they will also pull up a time capsule from the 1970s when the current building was constructed. Nice believes it is in the corner near the current entrance. Nice said they might add some items to the capsule and rebury it after the expansion.

As she looked around at the bare walls and empty floor space, Nice already has the new layout mapped out. She can point to tape outlines on the white walls, which label all the changes soon to come.

"We're not going to do away with any of it," she said of the many artifacts and exhibits now in storage. "We're just going to bring it back better."

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