For Margaret Davis, stepping into the role of executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum is an opportunity to not only help preserve the area’s history, but make history.
With the help of a small staff and a dedicated cadre of volunteers, Davis is eager to build partnerships and so the museum can continue to serve the community for years to come.
Davis’ journey to become director of Kalispell’s oldest public building began while growing up in Helena. He credits his parents for sparking his lifelong interest in history and museums.
“My father and his parents are natives of Montanan. He loves Montana,” he said. “My parents were huge history buffs, so we did a lot of traveling around Montana and museums were always part of the equation.”
His parents are also big do-it-yourselfers.
“My parents bought a Victoria fixer-upper at Helena,” she says. “About a third of every home movie is about us kids hauling plaster buckets.”
Davis says growing up in such an environment gave him the confidence that he could learn how to do things on his own. Later he would undertake six major house renovations, along with new construction projects.
Working with his hands has always been one of Davis’ greatest pleasures. He studied traditional letterpress printing, typography and bookbinding at Scripps College in California, a Claremont Colleges, graduating in 1989.
“Scripps College has a long and proud tradition of having its own press,” Davis said. His considerable bookbinding skills were first honed there.
“I’ve always been a big reader and love books,” Davis said. “Growing up in a small town, that’s how I accessed the world. It’s a way to time travel, to develop empathy for other cultures.
“Books come alive when you open them. They are the perfect match between body and soul. When you hold a book and the story is good, it’s almost gone… but the story wouldn’t exist without that physical container.”
Also interested in journalism, Davis worked for five college newspapers.
IN CHICAGODavis joined the Artists Book Works cooperative, taking classes to improve his bookbinding skills, and in 1995 he founded Ma Nao Books, a publishing and binding house in Portland.
“I can make handmade beauty items with simple tools and skills that are easy to learn. It connects you with ancient crafts,” he said. “People appreciate that with letterpress printing, the type makes paper into a sculpture. They saw that it was hand sewn. People are hungry for that tactile experience.”
In 1996 Davis, who speaks Mandarin, received a grant to study bookbinding and related arts in the People’s Republic of China, along with an internship at the National Library of China in Beijing under Zhang Ping, head of its preservation department, which handles the rarest collection of books.
“Everything about books started in China,” Davis said. “Paper, movable type, and bookbinding — they are all Chinese innovations.”
Over the next six months he would learn to make the five oldest book formats, including scrolls, using methods that had not changed for centuries.
Davis says learning the art of bookbinding and traveling around China is a dream come true. But there are hurdles to overcome, the biggest of which is the Chinese bureaucracy.
“Since I am not an ‘official’ scholar, I have to create my own opportunities,” he said. “If you are not affiliated, no one knows what to do with you. I could not be determined, and learned something strange to them. ”
But when he returned to the United States, he missed China.
The following year Davis returned, this time editor of the first independent newspaper in Beijing. It was an exciting, if short-lived experience. They had to move their operation three times, once in the middle of the night.
“In the end we were shut down by the government,” he said. “Because we were too successful.”
The government confiscated all their equipment.
BACK TO Portland, he signed with another startup newspaper. In the following years he taught classes, worked as editor, proofreader, lead writer for the Portland Tribune, and gave presentations and workshops on Chinese bookbinding. He also published a number of books, including “Beijing Heart: A Tiananmen Story” in 1999 on the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, while an artist living in the MacDowell Colony.
Looking to perfect his business skills, Davis earned a Master of Business from George Fox University in 2021.
He said he always knew he would eventually return to Montana. He has family here, has visited growing up, and for the last 14 years has visited Flathead Valley with his son every summer.
When offered a position at Daily Inter Lake as its director of audience development, he accepted.
“I love the local news, the community building aspect, and the opportunity to strengthen bonds,” says Davis. “In smaller communities, connections are easier to make. You can make such a difference by being just one person.”
After becoming executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum three months ago, Davis was eager to put his MBA skills to use.
“Most of the people who work at the museum are unpaid volunteers, many of whom have been here since the museum opened. I connect with people who are passionate about what this place means,” he said. “When it was built in 1894, the city made a huge investment both financially and educationally. This adds to the core cultural appeal of Kalispell, along with the library and Hockaday.”
Originally Central School, the Richardsonian Romanesque building was built entirely from local materials for $20,000. It was one of the junior high schools in Montana. In 1929 it became the first junior high school in the area. After the City of Kalispell completed a $2.4 million renovation in 1998, it was established as a history museum (formerly Museum at Central School) and operated by the Northwest Montana Historical Society.
“This building has served so many people,” Davis said.
And continue to serve the community. Davis said visitors continue to come through the museum’s doors – more than 6,000 so far this year, a 25% increase from 2020-2021 combined.
“We continue to forge partnerships with other organizations,” Davis said. “We have an energy board, a new exhibition planned, a November 5 fundraising concert, an open house in December, and a monthly movie night and book club.
“We’re really a community center,” Davis said. “This is a space where people can enjoy, share and connect with what we have in common. And I am glad that I can help his mission further.”
Community editor Carol Marino can be reached at 406-758-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org.