CRM Journal

Exhibit Review

Treasure State Treasures

Montana Historical Society, Helena, MT. Curator: Kirby Lambert

Semipermanent, open until 2007


The Montana Historical Society's exhibit, Treasure State Treasures, has a twist that is sure to please the visitor. The story line does not illustrate the typical State historical event or famous Montana personality. Its chief objective is to get artifacts out of storage and on exhibit for visitors to enjoy, while giving them an opportunity to understand challenging museum issues.

The Montana Historical Society was established in 1865 and is the oldest, continuously run State historical organization in the Nation. The society publishes the journal, Montana: The Magazine of Western History; includes the State's historic preservation office; and operates an active educational outreach program.

Treasure State Treasures is organized around objects—a wall with military items, a cabinet of walking sticks, a kitchen full of paraphernalia. Exhibit curator, Kirby Lambert admits that an object-rich exhibit is the only way to address the enormous challenge of selecting just a few treasures among the hundreds of thousands of artifacts collected since the organization's establishment. Interpretive text is minimal but successful in setting the tone and explaining how objects were selected. Some speak to State significance and others are typical of everyday life. Selected items represent all areas of the State.

The success of Treasure State Treasures is "the drawers." A map cabinet has its drawers filled with archival riches protected by Plexiglas. Two "dressers" contain drawers for three-dimensional artifacts. Each drawer reflects a theme—railroads, political badges, and shoes. A label explains how the drawers are similar to museum storage where artifacts are not just squirreled away, but stored for conservation and research.

Future components of the exhibit will address context. A few bedraggled objects will be displayed next to a few pristine items. The visitor will learn that what appears to be "junk," a lump of adobe from Fort Benton, is valuable because of the story behind it and that the "nice" pieces, a couple of very large arrowheads, are not as valuable because no information exists to verify their authenticity.

Treasure State Treasures provides an admirable example of how museums can select from their storehouse of seemingly ordinary artifacts, place them within a broad context, and connect them to the experiences of their visitors.

Chris Ford
Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site