By Tom Eastman
Conway Daily Sun
A simulated Snowcat ride will be one of the interactive new exhibits once the Mount Washington Observatory completes work on its new summit museum, "Extreme Mount Washington," set to open in June 2014. (COURTESY OF MOUNT WASHINGTON OBSERVATORY}
MOUNT WASHINGTON — September 29 marked the end of an era on Mount Washington: the nonprofit Mount Washington Observatory officially closed the doors of its Mount Washington Museum, an integral part of the summit for more than 40 years.
Artifact removal and deconstruction began Sept. 30, and "Extreme Mount Washington," a high-tech, interactive educational experience dedicated to the science and wonder of a Mount Washington winter, is scheduled to open next spring.
"It's a bittersweet time," says Mount Washington Observatory curator Dr. Peter Crane.
He was among a group of Observatory staff and trustees who gathered to pay tribute to the Mount Washington Museum on its closing day.
"While we honor the past, we are thrilled to take this bold step forward with our educational program," said executive director Scot Henley. "The new museum will enhance the overall visitor experience at Mount Washington State Park, offering the peak's 250,000 annual visitors insight into the mountain's incredible weather and alpine environment. It will be a gem of the North Country that everyone in the Mount Washington community can be proud of."
The renovation process, which will run into the spring, is a remarkable undertaking in and of itself.
Located 6,288 feet above sea level and eight miles from anywhere, the museum is perched atop a mountain known as the "home of the world's worst weather." Bitter temperatures, high winds, remarkable snow and incredible ice engulf the peak from late October to mid-May. Summer is the only time the peak is accessible by vehicle, and the only time construction work can be performed. However, summer is also the mountain's peak tourist season.
Mount Washington Observatory's mountaintop museum welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each summer, making it the most trafficked museum in the entire state of New Hampshire. It's not the kind of place you can just close for construction. The result is an extremely narrow window of time when work can be done — just one or two weeks between peak visitation and closing of the Mount Washington Auto Road.
"We were able to successfully remove all the old exhibits in less than a week," explains director of museum operations Bill Grenfell, who is overseeing the project. "Our director of education and curator are now working to inventory and catalog all the artifacts, which are slated for permanent homes in our Gladys Brooks Memorial Library or other private collections."
A construction team from the Appalachian Mountain Club began demolition work on Oct. 7 and will stay in the Observatory's private living quarters until site work is completed, hopefully by mid-November.
The Appalachian Mountain Club construction crew was "a natural choice for the job," says Grenfell, as they are accustomed to working and living in remote locations.
Jeff Kennedy Associates of Somerville, Mass., is designing the new museum, which will engage visitors with high-tech, interactive exhibits. The firm has been planning and designing the new space for more than two years, and is currently building the exhibits as modular components in their Somerville facility.
The materials will be staged in box trucks at the base of the mountain, so they can be transported to the summit as soon as the road opens next spring.
"The only challenge that remains is raising the final funds for the project," says Henley. "Through the support of generous foundations and nearly 300 individual donors, we have raised just over $785,000 towards the total budget of $825,000. If you would like to make a lasting impression on one of the Granite State's most incredible cultural resources, we invite you to support this project."
The Observatory is accepting donations on Extreme.MountWashington.org, or by phone at 356-2137, ext. 230. Gifts of $250 or more earn the donor a named tile in the Mount Washington State Park Visitor Center at the entrance to the new museum. Additional naming opportunities are available.
"We are excited to be approaching the finish line on this important project," noted Henley. "It will be a shining example of the innovative educational outreach and cutting-edge scientific research that is being performed right here in the White Mountains."
A comprehensive master plan, renderings, and a special preview of the new exhibits are available on Extreme.MountWashington.org. A ribbon cutting is being planned for early June 2014.