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NH Historical Society to consolidate museum exhibits in Park Street location

When one museum closes, another might be able to open more vibrant than before – or so hopes New Hampshire Historical Society Executive Director Bill Dunlap.

Since 1995, the historical society’s Eagle Square location has operated as a companion site to its home at 30 Park St. Its final exhibition – “New Hampshire Through Many Eyes” – is set to close June 29, at which point all museum operations will move back to the building on Park Street.

Dunlap said the move is, in part, an effort to make more efficient use of the society’s space and resources, but he prefers to view it less as a consolidation than an opportunity to introduce the public to the architectural gems – and the library – hidden inside the other location.

“It’s a building that should be experienced,” he said of the Park Street facility. “It needs human interaction. The spaces are extraordinary.”

The society still plans to use its 6 Eagle Square building for storage and administrative work, and it might also lease out upstairs space for commercial tenants, but Dunlap said only the Park Street location will be open to the public after June. The museum store previously housed in the Eagle Square space will move online, according to a press release.

There was a grand vision back in the 1990s, when the Eagle Square location first opened, that the historical society might one day attract as many as 90,000 visitors each year, Dunlap said. In reality, he said attendance has been just a fraction of that forecast: Less than 20,000 visitors, about half of whom are students, visit the society’s museum exhibits annually. Additional visitors cycle through for lectures and other events, and the society serves about 7,500 other students through classroom outreach programs.

Meanwhile, Dunlap said visitation at the library inside the Park Street location “has been sort of stagnant, or slightly down” in recent years – so he hopes that redirecting future museum visitors back to Park Street might give the library a boost in attendance.

“It’s something that museums across the country are facing: With all of the competition for people’s time and attention, fewer people are taking the time to go to museums,” he said. “We’re committed to still offering that experience, but you have to be realistic.”

The museum’s move is part of a strategic plan several years in the works, which also includes an effort to digitize museum collections and spruce up the century-old Park Street facility to make it more hospitable to the delicate documents and other artifacts under the society’s care. Dunlap said the building must be equipped to maintain a careful balance of the right levels of light, temperature and humidity, and the skylights – which he described as “energy inefficient” – aging iron pipes and other infrastructure could also use some work.

Renovations on the Park Street building are likely to come next summer, Dunlap said, in time to reopen in fall 2015 with a new exhibit that’s still in the planning stages.

The society is relying on a fundraising campaign to offset the costs of this and other major projects, thus far raising $5 million toward its $9 million goal, Dunlap said.

Moving forward, Dunlap said the society will also make greater use of digital supplements to its in-person exhibits in an attempt to appeal to an increasingly wired audience of potential visitors. There’s a plan to display codes throughout the new exhibit slated for 2015, for example, that would allow visitors to use their smart phones in order to view additional information online.

“We think we’re really taking advantage of new possibilities that didn’t exist a decade or two ago,” Dunlap said.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at cmcdermott@cmonitor.com.)

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