On the second story of the Ravalli County Museum, there’s a map of Hamilton that dates back to time of Marcus Daly.
It’s stretched out on a low-lying table and protected by a heavy sheet of Plexiglass.
On this particular morning, it appears to be the most fascinating thing that a group of Washington Elementary kindergartners have ever seen.
Leaning forward on their elbows, the youngsters are peering hard at the dark set lines that mark the streets and boundaries of an earlier version of their home.
“I live right there,” says one as she scoots her finger to the middle of the map.
“Well, I live right here,” says another while pointing at the location of the Marcus Daly Mansion.
Other members of Kimberly Dowling’s inquisitive class have their noses pressed against another piece of clear plastic as they study a diorama that depicts a scene from the community’s earlier days.
“We are looking at what life would been like a long time ago here in Hamilton,” Dowling tells her class as she points out various objects of interest scattered across the room.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever been to a museum,” announces one little girl as her head swivels to take in all the artifacts scattered around the room. “I kind of like it.”
Dowling has heard that before.
She’s been bringing her classes to the Ravalli County Museum since 1996.
“Most of them have never been to a museum before,” Dowling said. “They’ve never been to a public place like this where there are things that they need to respect. It’s a good learning experience for them. They learn how to handle themselves in that situation.”
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The learning doesn’t stop there.
Dowling said the museum offers students a chance to learn about the Bitterroot Valley’s rich history and more.
Over the last couple of years, the museum has upgraded its displays and brought in exhibits on national tours. Last year, the number of children who walked through its doors jumped by 400 percent as young families took advantage of Saturday offerings.
“It’s always been a great resource for us,” Dowling said. “We have a hard time taking field trips anymore due to cost. We can touch on so many things by going to the museum.”
Dowling said her students often tell her that they asked their parents to take them back to the museum after their visit.
The national touring exhibits offer youngsters a chance to be exposed to something they might see in one of the larger museums in a metropolitan area.
“It’s a great advantage for our kids,” Dowling said. “Kindergartners are so excited about everything that they come in contact with. I know that every time I go to the museum, I learn something new.”
Ravalli County Museum Director Tamar Stanley said the museum has really been focusing on connecting with young families and youth.
They have done that by adding an education position and programming that’s attractive to both young families and local teachers.
The museum hosted a series of Saturday activities last summer that attracted several thousand children.
“We had a huge attendance on Saturdays,” Stanley said. “It was amazing to see parents hanging out with their kids and creating a nice experience for families.”
“That’s where we’ve seen our biggest spike in attendance,” she said. “Young families are now using us as a site for an outing. That is something that we want to retain and build on.”