Museum embraces Minnesota State Fair’s past
FALCON HEIGHTS — Linda Koutsky sounds conflicted when you ask her about the new History and Heritage Center at the Minnesota State Fair.
Koutsky wrote the book on State Fair history — “Minnesota State Fair: An Illustrated History” — with her mother, Kathryn Strand Koutsky, so she’s very familiar with the photos and artifacts lovingly collected by unofficial historian Gale Frost over the decades. These are the photos and artifacts that have been displayed in the old depot and train cars in Heritage Square.
“I liked it exactly how it was,” Koutsky said. “I liked the train, the old buildings, the blacksmith shop.”
But she’s not conflicted about one thing: although it was fun to pass through the depot and train, those photos and artifacts needed better care. As with most of the fair’s buildings, the old museum space was not heated or cooled, and the exhibits withstood years of seasonal extremes.
The new History and Heritage Center, on the other hand, is a bright and spacious exhibition hall with modern heating and cooling.
“I would say that’s terrific then, that those exhibits are being taken care of finally,” Koutsky said. “That’s worth sacrificing some funky old building.”
To be clear, the oldest, actually historic, structures still are there. The former North St. Paul Depot, the Royal American Carnival train cars and the log cabin now stand as life-size exhibits outside the new History and Heritage Center.
And unlike the often-overlooked depot, the new museum will be hard to miss.
It’s designed to welcome the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will arrive via the new West End transit hub. As they step through the gates onto the circular plaza, they’ll notice the steel skin of the museum building, designed to recall the fair’s agricultural heritage. They might not notice that the building is shaped to greet them.
“The roof is gesturing to the south and also to the north to open to all the people arriving from the new transit area,” said lead designer Andrew Tisue of the Cuningham Group. “So in a way, the building has two faces.”
Many visitors will pass straight by to head for the Midway, but those attracted to the museum’s back face will step into the West End Market and take in its front face: a wall of sliding glass doors topped by a section of wall with more tall, vertical windows. Natural light fills the building.
At night, the effect will work in reverse.
“All those openings at night will glow,” Tisue said. “As the sun’s setting, this corner of the building will be sort of a lantern, a beacon of light.”
The walls inside the museum are warm wood contrasting with cool polished concrete floors. The heavy wooden beams supporting the roof stand on exposed steel girders. It looks ag-industrial, but without the dirt and oil.
The exhibits definitely will benefit from the new museum. For one thing, the actual photos are not exhibited. High-quality digital reproductions are printed and baked onto rotating polygons grouped along the walls to tell the story of the fair and its century and a half of entertainment, competition, food and fun.
The photos are black and white, but many are retouched with splashes of color, such as an image of 4-H members hanging out in a barn, a curious cow looking over their shoulders. The photo is black and white, except for a pink watermelon they’re sharing.
Some groups of polygons form a larger picture if you happen to rotate them all to the big-picture side at the same time.
Artifacts, some touchable and others under glass, are scattered among the historic photos. Six glass floor cases display more items from the bygone era of dirt-track racing and thrill shows. One pays homage to Frost, the son of a State Fair lemonade vendor who gathered many of the artifacts, and another contains the costume of an old Fairchild gopher mascot.
There is no beginning or end to the display.
“You can’t predict how the public is going to come in and access the information,” said Terry Scheller, a Minnesota Historical Society graphic specialist who worked on the exhibit’s design team. “We purposely made it so if you wanted to just breeze through, you would see all these great photos and know that the Minnesota State Fair has a rich history. You’re just going to get that right away.
“It’s made so you can access it at any point you want to engage it.”
The fair owns and will operate the museum, but the Historical Society brought the exhibits to life.
The building and exhibits cost about $2.8 million, said fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette. It was paid for with a combination of State Fair funds — which are not taxpayer-supported — and fundraising by the State Fair Foundation.
Outside of fairtime, the museum will generate revenue by hosting smaller meetings and events, even in winter.
During the fair, the museum will benefit the vendors of the West End Market, whose new open-air stalls mimic the open-faced design of the museum. As many as half of State Fair visitors are expected to arrive via the West End transit hub, and those who are drawn to the new museum are likely to check out the market, too.
Koutsky, the fair historian, said she’s going to be one of them.
“I’m super excited,” she said. “That’s the first place I’ll go.”