North Dakota's Heritage Center has seen a record number of visitors this year thanks to a $52 million upgrade of the facility, which sits on the state Capitol grounds in Bismarck, officials said.
The new museum, which has doubled in size, features everything from dinosaur fossils to antique farm machinery to an experimental Mars spacesuit. It has been dubbed the "Smithsonian on the prairie" by Gov. Jack Dalrymple and others.
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State Historical Society Director Claudia Berg said about 150,000 people have visited the museum since April 28, when the expanded facility's first two galleries opened.
"It's very gratifying to see all the people using the facility," Berg said.
Scores of school children from across North Dakota have toured the new facility which houses thousands of artifacts, high-tech displays and interactive exhibits that help tell the story of North Dakota, Berg said. Some teachers are incorporating the exhibits into lesson plans, Berg said.
The original facility was built in 1967 and had averaged about 100,000 visitors annually until the expansion, Berg said.
The number of visitors surpassed the prior annual average in about four months after opening, she said.
The grand opening for the revamped center was held Nov. 2 and coincided with the state's 125th statehood anniversary. More than 2,500 people attended the event, including Dalrymple and former governors John Hoeven, Allen Olson, Ed Schafer and George Sinner.
The expansion also includes a new theater, cafe and outdoor space.
State lawmakers approved about $40 million for the 97,000-square-foot expansion in 2009, while stipulating that the remaining cost had to be raised elsewhere.
The historical society raised an additional $12 million in private donations, including $1.8 million from billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, the chairman of Oklahoma City-based Continental Resources Inc., one of the largest operators in North Dakota's booming oil patch.