The Merrill Historical Society is well on its way to a brand new facility that will be the new home of Merrill’s past. Construction is progressing on the new 4,000 square foot museum that is connected to the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church alongside the Prairie River. The building is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
For the first time, the Merrill Historical Society will have a facility that was constructed with the intent to be a museum. From its first home in a historic house of T.B. Scott on Third Street to the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, the society has had to try to fit its museum into a space that was constructed for some other purpose.
“The church wasn’t particularly useable,” said Historical Society Treasurer Pat Burg, “and the T.B. Scott house was really a house. We had to work within the confines of what that house was.”
The Historical Society kicked off the “It’s About Time” fundraising campaign in June 2010 and broke ground in June 2012.
“We had such a wonderful response to our initial fund raising,” Historical Society President Bea Lebal said.
The Historical Society was able to raise $1.25 million, which is enough to building the addition. However, the membership has approved borrowing another $150,000 to renovate the historic 1926 church building. A new capital campaign, called “The Time Has Come,” has been launched to raise an additional $250,000 to fully complete the project.
The Historical Society had lost some space from the original addition plans when they scaled back to cut costs.
“When we saw the main exhibit area and saw that it was not all that big, we looked at how we could use the whole facility and realized we needed to do (the church) building as well,” Lebal said.
With the help of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, the church basement has been gutted and the kitchen torn out. That space is being transformed to accommodate exhibits and a work/storage room.
“It gives us a lot of really needed exhibit and storage space,” Burg said.
The Historical Society was gifted the Bethlehem Lutheran Church by its congregation in 2006. The organization purchased two adjoining lots, including the church parsonage, with plans for a future building project.
The parsonage, which had been used as the Historical Society’s office, has been torn down to make way for a parking area. All the contents of the parsonage were moved into the main level of the church building, where a temporary office was set up within a week of the move from the parsonage.
The new addition incorporates green building technologies and energy efficiencies. It will be environmentally controlled to protect and preserve valuable collections. The project complies with accessibility codes, as an elevator connects the three levels of buildings.
The addition will include a research library to provide a comfortable setting to conduct historical research aided by computer technology. The research library is the first area that the Historical Society wants to have available to the public.
“It’s going to be so much nicer than what we have had,” Lebal said.
The Pinery – in hiatus since the move to the Bethlehem Church - will return with a permanent home to showcase Merrill’s lumbering history. One of the Society’s most popular exhibits, it will replicate a lumber camp shed interior with open-beam ceiling. Visitors will experience the timber era and learn about Merrill’s historical ties to the wood products industry.
The general store exhibit, which was a feature of the museum in the T. B. Scott house, will return to occupy a space in the church basement. Another exhibit planned for the basement is “Merrill’s Attic,” which will be a display of various items that don’t necessarily fit with a larger collection or theme.
“This will allow us to get out a lot of the varied and unconnected things we have stored,” Burg said. “It should be an exciting new exhibit space.”
The main level of the church will become space for teaching, programming and temporary exhibits. The open space will be flexible for different activities, Lebal said.
The Historical Society is still deciding on specific uses for all the newfound space. “Our programming will evolve as we go along,” Lebal said. “The plan will evolve as we fit ourselves into this facility.”
The exhibit committee is working to plan the exhibits that will be featured initially. Lebal said she expects it will take months to get all the exhibits in place.
“That will allow us to have a lot of mini-openings,” Burg said. “It should be kind of a fun year.”
The Historical Society has been consulting with professional exhibit planners to get new ideas for the new facility.
The Livingston building across from T.B. Scott Library will be retained for storage.
“We will not have everything out all at once,” Lebal said. “It gives us the flexibility to change exhibits over time.”
Technology will be incorporated into the museum, offering exhibits that engage the viewer through touch screen technology, video or multi-dimensional animation.
“We know we need technology to keep things interesting for the younger set,” Burg said.