Alpena museum dreams big with planned new exhibit

Along with his father, Jesse Besser created the Besser Company, which developed a mechanical system to build cement blocks on a construction site, rather than creating them in one location and transporting them to another. 

Jesse Besser was an inventor and manufacturer -- an innovator. He and his wife, Anna, also funded the creation of his namesake museum in Alpena, the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan, known for its vast collection of art and artifacts, as well as its full-dome planetarium and a two-story Foucault pendulum.

The expansive museum is carrying on the innovator’s legacy with plans to transform a 3,000-square-foot space into a contemporary, interactive history exhibit using the latest technology.

“This is an exciting time for the museum as we are reinventing ourselves in the renovation by adding more interactive and immersive experiences for users of all ages, especially children as there are no kids museums in northeast Michigan,” said Christine Witulski, executive director of the museum. 

What’s happening: The museum is in the midst of a two-year journey to raise $1.5 million to transform a 3,000-square-foot space into a premier history exhibit, marking the first time in more than 50 years that the space has been renovated.
The new Discover Northeast Michigan History exhibit will transport visitors through 11 time periods celebrating the region’s history. The museum is using state-of-the-art technology and 21st-century museum design to elevate the story of northeast Michigan, Witulski says.

What is the Besser Museum: The museum was founded in the early 1960s and boasted the only planetarium in northeast Michigan The museum includes the Lafarge Fossil Park from the Devonian period, Great Lakes Fisheries Heritage, 12 historic shops and rotating art exhibits. The museum sees an average of 20,000 to 30,000 visitors a year, with approximately 2,000 students visiting a year.
New exhibit details: The Discover Northeast Michigan History Museum will feature 11 periods, beginning with an introduction to the universe and continuing through the First Peoples to farming and the Industrial Revolution. 

Here are the periods:

The first explores the creation of the universe, with 3-D planet models, Milky Way murals and telescope viewer.

The second shares the formation of the Earth with a mammoth mural and a dinosaur skull. 

Next is the Ice Age because “you cannot have an ice age without the Great Lakes,” says Witulski. This exhibit will focus on kid-friendly activities with an ice log and a glacier, which kids can climb and slide down to a floor model of Lake Huron. 

After sliding into Lake Huron, guests will explore Thunder Bay River, which will include a woodland setting and a river floor element. The river was aptly named; “it was coined Thunder Bay because of the roar of the rapids before the dam,” Witulski says. 

An exhibit about the First Peoples follows. The stories of the First Peoples will be shared; the museum is working with local Tribes (Bands of Chippewa, Odawa, Saginaw, Sioux and the Little River of Ottawa) to collect authentic stories that represent indigenous people. In addition, there will be an interactive canoe and a wigwam with a dome sky.

Then comes the Fur Trade age. A log cabin and colonial artifacts will be displayed.
Michigan -- the State will explore the state’s history and formation.  

The Timber Boom will feature a lumberjack bunkhouse and walk-through tree. 
Growing Communities will include an “avenue of shops.”

Farming will have a dairy cow display and farming equipment.

Lastly, the Industrial Revolution will feature a metal beam industrial entrance and interactive gear. 

Fundraising: So far, the museum has raised $1.2 million toward its goal. Money has come primarily through grants from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council, the Besser Foundation and government monies. The remaining $300,000 needed to complete the project will likely come through grants and private donations.

For the public, there are two funding opportunities available. They are:  to leave a legacy, whether it be a “naming opportunity” for space at the New Discover Northeast Michigan or the donor recognition wall. All those participating in the naming opportunity are listed on a donor recognition wall. To donate, please visit the Besser Museum Discover Northeast Michigan History Exhibit Fund. The Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan offers a channel for donations.

When will the project be completed: The grand opening date is set for December 2024. Phase one has begun with dismantling the existing exhibit and removing artifacts. Proposed design elements will be presented in the fall with a final presentation to the museum board in January. If approved, phase two will begin with the production of the exhibits. The museum has been working with Split Rock Studios in the production of the exhibit. Meridian has been helping the museum stay on track with grant deadlines.

"Like everywhere currently, construction workers are in high demand in the northeast Michigan region, and working with grants you cannot miss deadlines and Meridian has been a great partner in ensuring we stay on target,” Witulski says.

Jason M. Karel is a freelance writer based in northern Michigan. 
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