To the outside observer, it seems Dorothy Dahlgren and the Museum of North Idaho were destined for each other.
After graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in museology one Sunday in May of 1982, Dahlgren was back to her hometown of Coeur d’Alene to start a new job the very next day.
“The worst thing in my mind was having to move out of Coeur d’Alene, so to get this position I felt very lucky,” Dahlgren said.
This position is the director of the museum, a title Dahlgren has held since 1982. The museum predates her tenure, though, and turns 50 years old this spring.
To celebrate a half-century of educating the community, the museum will feature a “Keeping History Alive” exhibit when it opens for the season next month.
“We keep history alive, because history’s not dead,” program and marketing director Robert Singletary said. “We’ve been here for 50 years and we’ve made a major impact in the community, and we intend to do that into the future.”
Singletary joined the museum staff in 2012 after serving as a board member for about 15 years. He said the museum serves as a “community scrapbook.”
“A scrapbook is absolutely important to a person because it shows where they came from, what they did, who they are, and how they got there,” Singletary said. “I look at the museum as being that sort of thing for our community.”
Dahlgren said the Museum of North Idaho provides historical context and instills community pride to local residents.
“I believe that people are looking for a link to this place that they call home,” she said.
Singletary believes that is especially important now, as so many people have flocked to Coeur d’Alene from out of state in recent decades.
“If you have a substantial number of people who move into the community who don’t have any knowledge of our past, that could divide our community,” he said. “I think the role [the museum] plays right now,” Singletary continued, “is to get those newcomers who are coming here to become interested in the history of the area, to make this ‘their place.’”
Dahlgren said she hoped the 50th anniversary celebration would increase community awareness of the museum and its value to the area.
“I think people have an idea of what we do down here,” she said, “but they don’t really understand that without their support we wouldn’t be able to preserve the history of our area.”
She added that the museum exists outside the four walls housing its exhibits.
For example, Singletary said he visits more than 1,000 local students each year, and also gives monthly history programs at the public library.
“We’re not just in this building,” Dahlgren said, “we’ve got out fingerprints out in the community.”
Although the museum aims to provide the fullest representation of North Idaho history possible, both Dahlgren and Singletary acknowledged the museum had outgrown its current space on Northwest Boulevard near Lake Coeur d’Alene.
According to Dahlgren, the museum stores 35,000 pictures on an in-house database, has published 27 regional history books, and keeps 7,000 artifacts in an off-site storage unit.
The Museum of North Idaho moved to its current location in 1979. Its Articles of Incorporation were approved on May 1, 1968, and the museum officially opened on July 28, 1973.
Singletary encouraged everyone to pay a visit to the museum’s 50th year celebration in order to better understand the history of their community.
“We’re a society that’s on the move all the time, and it’s easy to forget that there was a past,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that in order to understand the present, you must know your past. And, if you understand the present, then you’re prepared to meet the future.”
The “Keeping History Alive” exhibit opens April 3. The Museum of North Idaho is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of October.