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Mount Washington Observatory museum to offer extreme experience

  • A panorama photograph at the entrance of the Mount Washington Museum is on display at the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    A panorama photograph at the entrance of the Mount Washington Museum is on display at the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • (From left) Ryan Charles, 13, and Henry Proctor, 13, both of Nashville, Tenn., use their phones to record a video in the Mount Washington Museum at the peak of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    (From left) Ryan Charles, 13, and Henry Proctor, 13, both of Nashville, Tenn., use their phones to record a video in the Mount Washington Museum at the peak of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Tourists walk around the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Tourists walk around the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • The Lakes of the Clouds, bottom left, are seen from the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    The Lakes of the Clouds, bottom left, are seen from the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • A panorama photograph at the entrance of the Mount Washington Museum is on display at the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • (From left) Ryan Charles, 13, and Henry Proctor, 13, both of Nashville, Tenn., use their phones to record a video in the Mount Washington Museum at the peak of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. The Mount Washington Observatory plans to build an interactive experience named "Extreme Mount Washington" to replace the current museum.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Tourists walk around the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • The Lakes of the Clouds, bottom left, are seen from the summit of Mount Washington on Thursday, June 20, 2013. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

Visitors who trek to the summit of Mount Washington during its temperate summer months will soon gain an inside view to life on the 6,288-foot peak during the frigid winter.

The Mount Washington Observatory, a nonprofit scientific institution housed on top of the mountain, released plans on Memorial Day Weekend for the complete renovation of its museum, which is also located on the peak. The new space, titled “Extreme Mount Washington,” will offer visitors a modern, interactive experience that demonstrates the daily challenges of winter living on the mountain.

“It was all about bringing the winter experience to the summer visitor,” said Michelle Cruz, director of education for the Observatory. “The story we’ve provided through the new museum is of our weather observers and what they deal with in the winter on a daily basis.”

The summit of Mount Washington is a New Hampshire state park, and the Observatory leases space from the park in its Sherman Adams Summit Building. Although the Observatory runs 24 hours a day every day of the year, the rest of the building is closed to the public between October and May. As a result, the Observatory staff and guests and a handful of brave hikers are the only people who experience the mountain’s erratic winter weather, often called the “world’s worst weather.”

While the museum’s current exhibits are well-made and informative, Observatory Director of Advancement Cara Rudio said they do not offer enough to its more than 100,000 annual visitors.

“This experience that we’re giving them isn’t most reflective of our work today, to demonstrate the fact that we’re an internationally renowned institution,” she said. “We need to offer a more modern experience that reflects our work today.”

The exhibits are about 40 years old and some were constructed by Observatory staff themselves while they lived on the mountain. Cruz said they only plan on removing the old exhibits, not destroying them.

“We’re hoping to repurpose these in other places,” she said. “Everything in here shows something about Mount Washington. But going through here, there’s no interaction. It’s just a walk-through, self-guided museum.”

The Observatory chose Jeff Kennedy Associates Inc. of Somerville, Mass., to design Extreme Mount Washington. The museum’s current space will be completely stripped down and remodeled, and Rudio said the new layout was

designed very deliberately.

“Redoing it from start to finish has allowed us to design every style factor, the context, the traffic flow,” she said. “It is designed for maximum comprehension.”

The overhaul will begin at the museum’s entrance. Currently, the steps leading down to the lower level museum are slightly hidden. The redesigned entrance will appear more noticeable and inviting. A little less than half of Mount Washington’s annual visitors visit the museum as it is already, but Rudio said they expect every one of them to stop in after the remodel.

The gift shop will remain at the bottom of the steps, but the similarities end there. The first exhibit in the new museum will re-create the scene of the 1930s observatory room that recorded a world record wind gust April 12, 1934. During a wild storm, observers recorded a wind gust of 231 miles per hour, which remained the highest wind speed measured by man until 2010.

The current museum displays the anemometer, a device that measures wind speed, that recorded the record gust, but Rudio said the new exhibit will better explain its significance.

“This is one of the most important events on Mount Washington,” she said. “Right now it’s tiny, and you can almost miss it when you walk in. . . . It will be given much better treatment in the new space.”

One wall of the museum will display an updated, interactive version of the panoramic summit view currently on display.

“Visitors will be able to scroll through and look at a panoramic of Mount Washington through the different seasons and not just look at a static image of one day,” Cruz said. “The visitors we have this time of year don’t get to see all those views.”

Cruz expects a highlight of the renovated museum to be its snow cat simulator. The snowcat, the Observatory’s mode of transportation in winter months, operates on large tractor-like wheels and fits an operator and 12 passengers.

The approximately 30-minute trip to the summit in summer months becomes a two- to three-hour journey in the snowcat, Cruz said. Its numerous obstacles include 20-foot snow drifts and low visibility due to clouds, fog or blowing snow.

“Part of the experience of traveling up the mountain in the winter is being in the snowcat,” she said. “This will give visitors the chance to sit behind the gears and experience the weather we see in the winter.”

Another high-tech exhibit will be a time-lapse video of the creation of rime ice by videographer Tom Guilmette. Rime ice, or frozen fog, forms when extremely cold water droplets freeze instantly when they come into contact with solid objects.

Previous videographers who had been charged with filming the formation of rime ice have always failed, Cruz said, because of the difficulties of filming water droplets that will instantly coat a camera lens in ice when they touch it. Guilmette was the first person to capture the phenomenon on film.

One section of the museum will focus on the dangerous aspects of Mount Washington in the winter. The Observatory conducted interviews with hikers who experienced extreme weather on the mountain and will play these stories on a loop. It includes hikers who have been rescued and volunteers who have done the rescuing.

While every mountain has a number of incidents every year, Rudio said Mount Washington draws a larger number of inexperienced climbers than most because of its proximity to cities and the temperate climate at its base. As a result, many people come unprepared for the rapidly changing weather and the drop in temperature at the summit. Many of the mountain’s 130 documented deaths can be attributed to these weather difficulties.

“It’s not to be morbid, but to spread awareness,” Rudio said. “Not only will it be a more modern, fun, interactive experience, but it will do a better job of public awareness, which is part of the Observatory’s mission statement.”

But before visitors can be treated to the interactive winter experience the Observatory has planned, the nonprofit needs to reach its fundraising goal. Before announcing the remodel to the public, the group was able to raise $725,000 of the $825,000 the plan requires. Now it is looking to its members and the general public to help reach its goal.

“When we think about how much we’ve been lucky to raise already, we’re really excited to open the campaign to the public,” Cruz said. “And people have already reached out. It’s heartwarming for sure.”

The Observatory plans to demolish the current museum in the fall and to prepare the facility over the winter months. The installation of the new exhibits is scheduled for early spring 2014.

There are a number of challenges to renovating a museum on top of a mountain, Cruz said.

“This is by far the biggest project the Observatory has been doing,” she said. “There’s a lot going on, a lot happening. And it’s not just for us, its for the more than 250,000 people that come to Mount Washington each year.”

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan@cmonitor.com.)

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the height of Mount Washington’s peak. It is 6,288 feet.

If you want to see the Lakes of the Clouds in the photo look bottom right, not left. Between the visible trail and the hut.

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