Iron ore Iron lore

NEGAUNEE – The Michigan Iron Industry Museum’s chronicle of the history of iron mining in the state ends on something of an uncertain note about the industry’s future.

That’s about to change.

Next year, the museum in Negaunee Township will begin the first of a five-phase, $200,000 project to upgrade its exhibits. By not only bringing its history of the Upper Peninsula’s iron ranges into the 21st century, but also incorporating 21st century technology, the museum hopes to educate and engage tech-savvy kids and curious adults.

Troy Henderson, a historian with the Michigan Historical Center, said that much of Phase 1 of the upgrades will be telling the story of iron mining in Michigan from the 1950s and 1960s – when concerns first arose about the depletion of the area’s high-grade ore – to the industry’s continued life in the present day.

“When the museum was built in 1987, the iron industry at that point, it was looking kind of bleak, actually,” Henderson said. “And so we end our exhibit galleries with a panel called ‘Demand and Decline.’ And since then, that hasn’t been the case for the iron industry. It’s really picked up and the market has become more global. We’re going to be telling that story.”

He said much of the industry’s revival and continued life can be credited to developing the pelletizing technology that enabled it to shift from the underground mining of high-grade ore to the lower-grade taconite mined from open pits.

“That transition of pelletizing the taconite really enabled the iron range – the Marquette Iron Range and the iron mines in the Lake Superior region – gave them, really, a lease on life,” he said. “If that process was not developed, then there would be no iron mining (today).”

The museum’s upgrades are possible thanks to $200,000 pledged from Cliffs Foundation, the charitable arm of Cliffs Natural Resources. The foundation will disburse $40,000 annually over the next five years.

Jennifer Huetter, Cliffs’ district manager of public affairs in Michigan, said the project seemed like an obvious and natural endeavor for the company to support.

Planning has already begun for the first phase of upgrades, with exhibit design slated to begin this winter and a completion date sometime next year.

The second and third phases will focus on installing technology in select exhibits that will allow a greater level of interaction between museum-goers and the area’s history.

“One of the things we’ve been investigating is having technology where people can actually walk up and interact with this screen, and it can be layered technology where we can tell more of a story than what we could by just a panel with images and text,” Henderson said. “So visitors can expect over the next few years to be able to use this technology to get video, images and a lot of things – layered technology – that you wouldn’t ordinarily get from a museum setting.”

Henderson and Huetter both said that the technological aspects of the exhibit will be especially helpful for engaging younger generations.

“Local school groups come to the museum, so I think it’s a way for them to interact in a way that they’re very familiar and comfortable with,” Henderson said. “They’ll be able to tap in on that and learn and ask questions in a different way.”

Huetter agreed.

“I think it’s going to be exciting for people to see – and especially for kids, when they come to the museum on school group tours – it’s going to be wonderful to have that interactive (element) and interactive screens and all that type of activity for them to do,” she said. “It won’t just be walking around and looking anymore.”

Henderson said the project’s final two stages will involve moving the museum’s Carp River Forage artifacts to a different section to prepare for changes to the wing where they’re currently displayed. Phases 4 and 5 will also potentially involve ways for amateur historians to do independent research online. One example, Henderson said, could be creating access to the museum’s database of newspaper articles on miners injured or killed in the mines.

“We’ll be looking at a way to get that information online so that visitors can learn more about research for people,” he said. “We get inquiries from people in Finland with ancestors who came to Negaunee to work in the mines. So it’s a way to research and learn more about these miners.”

Henderson said places like the museum are more important than ever for connecting people in the area with their own history and heritage.

“This area’s mining history is very critical,” he said. “And we tell the story of the iron industry in Michigan, but we also focus that story a little bit on the Marquette range and tell the story of the communities and the people that built up this iron range. Many of the families of those miners are still here. You can go in the museum and look at the captions of the miners and I recognize a lot of those same names graduated high school from Negaunee. So it is a very important part of our story … and it’s an important one to tell.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.