KEEPING HISTORY HOPPING: JACOB THOMAS
Northwest Montana History Museum
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The addition of an executive director who was just 28 when he was hired last year to run the Northwest Montana History Museum has become the perfect blend of young and old at one of downtown Kalispell’s landmark buildings.
Jacob Thomas has brought new ideas and energy to the museum housed in the restored 1894 Central School, and he was just what the museum’s board of directors was looking for.
“He’s good with social media and website management, and that’s something that we’ve needed help with,” board president Laurie Happ said in a recent Daily Inter Lake interview. “We think that he’ll be able to help us reach out and maybe reach people that we haven’t been able to get before.”
The Detroit-area native said he first fell in love with history on a school field trip to Gettysburg in eighth grade when he, a friend and his dad were the only three people not to retreat back to the bus when offered a chance to explore the historic battlefield. “The three of us walked around and looked at all the monuments,” Thomas recalled. “And at that point I thought to myself, ‘you know, it seems like I like this stuff a lot more than other people my age. I think this is something I could probably do for a living.’”
He earned a master’s degree in museum studies at Appalachian State, and worked for museums in two states before coming to Kalispell. A self-described Civil War buff in high school, Thomas believes his mix of modern schooling and passion for history — a subject typically reserved for adults many years his senior — keeps him balanced in his new job.
There’s a fine line to walk, he said, between modernizing the museum and attracting a younger audience, but not alienating the longtime donors and members. “While you’re changing things you can’t forget about your base,” Thomas stressed. “Our base, and every museum’s base of donors and volunteers, is older than I am.”
One of Thomas’ goals has been to refresh the museum’s exhibitions. According to him, lavish, expensive, permanent exhibits were extremely popular from the 1980s through 2000s but in recent years the industry has taken a dramatic turn. “Since I’ve been in school and gotten out of school there has been a complete 180-degree switch,” Thomas said. “Although they look nice, every exhibit gets dated … Plus, it limits you. If it’s up there it’s going to take up a bunch of space and the more money you spend you’re going to be loathe to replace it.”
Ideally, Thomas said, two of the museum’s four main exhibition spaces will eventually be what he called semi-permanent, staying up for around 10 years. The other two will rotate every two to three years. “You’re looking for people to come back,” Thomas said, explaining the philosophical change. “Once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. I think you want to show that you’re a dynamic organization; you’re open to change, you’re open to movement, you’re open for growth.”
He also is looking into the possibility of building a virtual tour or app for the museum.
The Northwest Montana History Museum is located at 124 Second Ave. E. in Kalispell. More information is available at www.yourmuseum.org.