by Sheri Boggs

If the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is positioning itself to have something for everyone, then the opening exhibits are proof positive that the museum is putting its money (both literal and metaphorical) where its mouth is. A winning combination of natural history, cultural artifacts, civic pride and contemporary art, the four opening exhibits launch the museum's five new galleries. More important, they will demonstrate exactly what the new MAC is all about.

The first exhibit most visitors will see is Hometowns: Heart of the Inland Northwest. Visible from the ramp leading into the gallery are a drive-in theater (complete with car seats and clunky metal speakers), a big neon Fonk's Five and Dime sign, a barber pole and a truck with a road-worn old camper on the back. This is unlike any other museum exhibit you've ever seen and yet, in many ways, it's utterly familiar.

"This is the exhibit where we extend a welcome and an invitation to people in Eastern Washington and North Idaho," says Yvonne Lopez-Morton, media relations manager for the MAC. "It's about them, who they are and what their experiences were."

Forty-eight area historical societies within a 200-mile radius participated in the exhibit, which also includes the last stoplight on 1-90 from Wallace, Idaho, a combine cab from Colfax and the world's largest bovine hairball. The exhibit will be the longest-running of the four opening shows, on display through June 2004.

"Hometowns" is organized not by town, but by various subjects and themes. "Another Roadside Attraction" highlights all the sorts of regional oddities worth a quick trip off the highway, for instance the Teapot Dome service station east of Zillah or our own Steptoe Butte. "Everything Changed When" delves into the kinds of pivotal events that change a community forever. And "The Big Game" recalls the small-town football rivalries, civic team spirit and last-minute State B victories that live on in local lore.

Within those themes, some of the best parts include interactive elements, for instance a cow you can "milk" (its tail swishes when you ply the udders), binoculars for reading interpretive signs up high on the walls in the "Another Roadside Attraction" section, some Viewmasters on poles and several video stations.

In the "campground," a corral of old lawn chairs surrounds the back of the camper, which has been removed and now houses a video presentation on local lakes and campgrounds. While you watch the video, spotlights identify lakeside flora and fauna. The video fun doesn't stop there; climb into the combine, the screen in front of you lights up and suddenly you're harvesting your wheat crop in the Palouse. Head over to the drive-in, have a seat on some vintage Ford vinyl and watch small town life as it happens in Wilbur, Wallace and Mullan.

Hunting and fishing are also prominent in "Hometowns," and the depths of Loon Lake surrender up two of the show's more amusing pieces, including a big clot of fishing tackle and what might be the world's heaviest diving helmet.

"This guy up at Loon Lake made it himself," says Marsha Rooney, curator of history. "It weighs like 40 pounds and he used to go out in the lake with this thing on his head."

"Hometowns" paints a picture of not only small town life, but also life during the mid-20th century, a period not always covered by museums. A hilarious "domestic" exhibit case contains a scary electric perming machine, a junior homemaker doll that comes with a vacuum cleaner and a 1960s hair dryer from before the era of blow dryers.

A telephone section brings up one of the strongest, but unstated, elements of "Hometowns": oral history.

"What we're hoping to do here is make it possible for people to leave their own story," says Rooney. "I've seen it in other museums, and I've always wanted to do that. I think it's really important that people feel that they're a part of this exhibit and that it brings up memories of their own."

With the museum's name changing from Cheney Cowles to the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, it's not surprising that culture plays such a significant role, especially in the People of the Rivers: Lifeways of the Northern Plateau exhibit, which takes up two gallery spaces. The MAC's collection contains more than 36,000 objects and is considered one of the largest and most significant collections of the Plateau tribes in the United States. The museum represents the crossroads of four major Indian reservations: Spokane, Kalispel, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and Coeur d'Alene.

Visitors enter a darkened space, crossing over an old black-and-white photograph projected onto the floor. The hues are subdued and natural and there are photographs of both contemporary and historic regional American Indians stretching across the entrance. While there are photographs, artifacts, everyday tools and ceremonial objects, "People of the Rivers" is one of the most engaging and interactive exhibits at the new museum. Visitors get a feel for what it's like to scrape a hide, dig a root or work with a mortar and pestle. There is a slender straw that emits a strong whiff of smoked salmon, a staple food for the People of the Rivers. A twining station gives would-be weavers a chance to try their hand at making cloth, and there are scraps of fur to show the difference between a bear hide and a deer hide.

History plays a crucial element in the "People of the Rivers" exhibit. The histories of each tribe and their interactions with white settlers. "Pelts and Profits" details the history of the Spokan [sic] House and how trading posts were often the first collaboration between settlers and Indians. "The Animal People" brings together a collection of native creatures, including a coyote, a whitetail deer, a rattlesnake and a salmon. A phone bank encircles the animals, and visitors can hear creation stories, such as "How Coyote Brought Salmon to the Columbia River," and the story of "Frog and Water Snake," told in both English and Salish. The exhibit will be open through December 2002.

Many of the items in the MAC's collection come from the 1992 accession of MONAC (Museum of Native American Cultures) and illustrate the new role of museums in the handling of cultural artifacts. In a show of respect and gratitude to the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispel and Colville tribes, the MAC constructed a cedar-lined ceremonial room that is not open to the public and is even off-limits to most of the staff.

"We got everything moved in, and the tribal elders came to bless the room just last week," Morton explains. "Once things are put in there, they belong there and are protected. When it comes to human remains -- and I don't necessarily mean skeletons or human remains in that sense, so much as sacred and ceremonial items -- it's a sensitive issue, and it's important to handle things in a much more respectful fashion than has been done in the past."

The renovation of the Davenport Hotel is the inspiration behind The Davenport Hotel: The Glory Years, 1914-1945. Objects from the hotel's heyday -- including a small herd of original 1915 planters, vintage Davenport bean pots (popular with the picnic crowd), and assorted bits of glass, plaster, framing and trim -- give a sneak preview as to the kind of restored luxury people can expect when the hotel reopens. Gorgeous glass-and-wood panels (originally windows from the hotel's "Early Bird" nightclub) frame segments on Louis Davenport, architect Kirtland Cutter and some of the many luminaries who visited the hotel, including Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Sarah Bernhardt and Dashiell Hammett. The windows themselves are set with antique glass set with cascading red maple leaves, sprays of wheat and fronds of Boston fern.

Photographs of the hotel's construction, opening and day-to-day operations evoke a sense of gracious plenty and undeniable class. The hotel's staff gathers for a photograph in their starched, voluminous uniforms, and a well-heeled picnic group poses in front of their enormous car, their Davenport picnic lunch ready and waiting.

The postcard wall is not only an impressive collection of three decades of vintage Davenport postcards, but also a testament to how amazing the hotel was to visitors. Delicate pen-and-ink cursive accounts of stellar service, exceptional rooms and exquisite cuisine are juxtaposed with hand-tinted or black-and-white hotel shots. The exhibit will run through the hotel's projected opening in spring, next year, closing on June 30.

When many people think of museums, they think of the kind that are devoted primarily to art, the kind with lots of space and plain walls punctuated by paintings and sculpture. Social Landscapes -- James Lavadour: Landscapes is just that sort of show, and yet much more. "Social Landscapes" is a three-part exhibit, exploring the interplay of contemporary society and the natural world, as seen through the eyes of three regional artists.

Walla Walla artist James Lavadour renders his oil-on-board landscapes in rich earthy shades. Skeletal forms -- rib cages, femurs, the curve of a skull -- emerge from and are a part of the cliffs, mountains, river beds and plains of his work. The relationship between contemporary society and the natural world is a conflicted one in Lavadour's vision: the bones signify both our reliance on the land and the potentially grim outcome of abusing and neglecting it. "James Lavadour: Landscapes" runs through March 31, to be followed by the second part of the exhibit, featuring photographer Robert Adams, which opens on April 18.

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Through Sept. 27
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