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How many reasons would you like, to get you to visit the Ravalli County Museum tonight?

Director Tamar Stanley can rattle off three good reasons, right off the top of her head, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find more – beginning with free admission.

This evening, Friday, Nov. 15, marks the opening of their second annual Gallery of Trees signature event, with a display of 11 Christmas trees, decorated by local businesses and organizations. Each tree has a different theme, and all will be sold via silent auction over the course of the next week.

One tree is festooned with gift certificates from various local eateries and purveyors of food and beverages; the lucky buyer will be dining out for weeks to come. Another features a tropical theme, with birds, monkeys, and tropical fruits to beguile the winter-weary eye; and the museum’s Wish List Tree is decorated with cards that invite passers-by to support their educational programming or sponsor an exhibit, or just to provide for such prosaic needs as copy paper or archival supplies.

In the past, Stanley noted, some winning bidders have turned around and donated the trees to local non-profits, such as the Bitterroot Youth Home, to brighten their holiday season.

Another unique aspect of the evening is the Money Tree, which is decorated with shiny copper pennies. The first two people to guess the correct number of pennies on the tree will win family visitor passes to the museum, plus a vintage gift.

The Sunshine Generation, children’s song and dance troupe, will perform for attendees.

The silent auction will continue through Nov. 22, bidders can check or increase their bids in person or by phone until the bidding closes, according to Stanley.

The Christmas tree display opens at 6 p.m., and visitors will then want to stick around for the next event, a 7 p.m. lecture by University of Montana professor Greg Peters, that will open the museum’s new natural history exhibit, “How Well Do You Know Your World?”

“It’s our headline exhibit for the next five months,” said Stanley, and it’s intended as an “expanding” exhibit, one that will grow from its initial installation to include additional themes and materials.

Geology is the initial topic, and Peters will speak on how the geology of the Bitterroot affects the flora and fauna that live here. The museum plans to feature two speakers each month, to address the many themes related to natural history, including water, wildlife, field and forest, people of the land, and climate change. The exhibit was developed by the museum’s Noellyn Pepos, in collaboration with staffers from the Bitterroot National Forest. Pepos’ goal is to give visitors a “feel” for natural history, with numerous hands-on exhibits, such as animal pelts that kids can handle and identify, mineral specimens, and even animal skulls that can be handled with adult supervision.

The display also features beautiful, large-format color photographs by Patrick Clark, illustrating many aspects of natural history from riparian habitat to mountaintops.

Lastly, on their way to see the Christmas trees and take in the natural history lecture and display, visitors will want to take in the museum’s World War II exhibit, opened on Veterans’ Day this week as a salute to Ravalli County’s military veterans, especially those remaining survivors of World War II.

Dan Rothlisberger, a museum board member and a veteran, said they looked through the museum’s collection to find the most impactful heirlooms and artifacts, donated by valley military families, to showcase. While the display features the expected uniforms and implements of war, such as bayonets and cartridge belts, it also presents the unexpected, to highlight how the war was experienced on the home front.

Among those items are a collection of teacups, with a heartwarming back story that deserves to be read in full; gasoline and food ration books; and a collection of posters that helped keep the public motivated and involved in the war effort. There is also a display that depicts the Rocky Mountain Lab’s focus on preventing and curing tropical diseases, in particular scrub typhus, which killed or sickened many soldiers.

With all that, it’s a good thing the museum will be open late on Friday. The Natural History display will continue through next April 15, and the WWII display for 5-6 months. For more information on any of the events or exhibits, call the museum at 363-3338.

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