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Ford Museum ceremony marks renovation, expansion work

Facility will reopen to the public next summer with a new learning center.

October 9, 2015
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The DeVos Learning Center addition is the focal point of the $15 million in renovation work at the Ford Museum. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum

The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum held an event recently that signified a pivotal moment in its renovation and construction project, as several years of planning become a reality.

The museum hosted a topping-off ceremony at 4:15 p.m., Oct. 12, to mark not only the installation of the final beam for the new DeVos Learning Center, but also the museum’s closure for several months as it undergoes a roughly $15 million construction and renovation process.

Joe Calvaruso, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, said while the event was open to the public, the museum was closed in preparation for installing new interactive exhibits and renovations.

“We started the construction on the learning center a couple of months ago and we had a topping-off ceremony on Monday,” said Calvaruso. “We will go through a complete redo of the museum, as well as doing the student learning center.”

The museum will reopen to the public during summer 2016, and the new learning center is anticipated to be completed by fall 2016, according to a press release.

The construction of the new addition is being done by Pioneer Construction; Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber was included in the design process.

While the renovation and new student learning center projects were announced in 2012 after the Ford Presidential Foundation’s local trustees met with area business and community leaders, Calvaruso said the planning really started five years ago.

“We started talking about how we refresh the museum, and that is very typical for a museum, to be redone every 15 to 20 years to be state-of-the-art,” said Calvaruso. “Steve Ford, who is such a visionary, said it is really too bad that young adults come, spend an hour and a half or a couple of hours, and then they leave. It is pretty accurate. We really don’t have a facility to sit down and share stories on President Ford.”

Dedicated in 1981, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum was last updated in 1996.

During the planning process of redesigning the museum to create a more engaging and interactive experience, Calvaruso said the idea to incorporate different modules in a learning center and renovating the museum to create an all-day experience “kept bubbling up.”

“We got onto this thought process of why not do a learning center and redo the museum.” said Calvaruso. “So we started the process, went out and raised $15 million to redo the museum and a learning center, and it is starting to come to a reality.”

While initial plans for the state-of-the-art student learning center called for roughly 10,000 square feet, Calvaruso said the size was reduced partly due to energy efficiency.

“We didn’t want to make it any bigger or have anything unnecessary that didn’t meet our objectives,” said Calvaruso. “So as we got into the details, we were able to do three state-of-the-art training facilities in the 8,000 square feet, and that was our mission.”

The foundation raised more than $15 million in private funds to enhance the museum, which included roughly $5 million allocated for the DeVos Learning Center, nearly $8 million to renovate existing exhibits, and about $2 million to support the digitalization of a number of historical documents.

After the renovation and construction is completed, Calvaruso said the museum will have eight new interactive exhibits where visitors can “do what-ifs — dig deeper, dig below the surface,” and will double the number of video clip viewing areas. The new addition also will provide an opportunity for teachers to bring their classes to the presidential museum to learn about history and civics.

The foundation also has been working with Grand Valley State University to develop curricula for students and visitors to the museum.

“At this point, we have been working pretty much solely with Grand Valley,” said Calvaruso. “We learned fairly early on it was probably too much for a part-time instructor and committee to do, so the foundation is currently in the process of hiring a full-timer person to spearhead the new training we are adding to our existing training.”

With the updates, Calvaruso anticipates the Ford Museum will continue to attract new visitors and attendance should increase significantly.

“To the ordinary observer the museum looked good, but we were going to get to the point of ‘I’ve been to the museum. There is nothing new for me to look at’ type of syndrome,” said Calvaruso.

“There will be a substantial increase in attendance, and that is really what it is all about for the national archives and their museums: getting people through and the satisfaction level when they leave.”

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