James W. Calhoun: An Oral History

James W. Calhoun and the Nevada State Museum

Interviewee: James W. Calhoun
Interviewed: 1986
Published: 1987
Interviewer: R. T. King
UNOHP Catalog #138

James W. Calhoun was born in Philipsburg, Montana, in 1903. His oral history outlines the development of the Nevada State Museum, of which he was director from 1950 to 1973. The museum was founded in 1939, when the Nevada legislature passed a bill allocating funds for the purchase of the old United States Carson City Mint building from the federal government. It took two years to remodel and renovate the structure. On October 31, 1941, the Nevada State Museum finally opened its doors to the public.

In 1948, its founder, Judge Clark J. Guild, and William Donovan, a museum board member, pushed to have a replica of a mine built in the basement of the museum. Major Max C. Fleischmann agreed to finance the project with a gift of $50,000.

In 1948 Director Tony Green hired Jim Calhoun to build display cases for a new gun room. He also had Calhoun construct cages for animals in the children’s zoo, which was located alongside the museum. By April 1950, problems over the construction of the mine and the development of the zoo led to the resignation of Tony Green. The board of trustees asked Jim Calhoun if he could complete the mine with the money remaining and have the exhibit ready by Nevada Day, 1950. Calhoun accepted the challenge, and the board appointed him supervisor, temporarily in charge of the museum. By the next board meeting Jim Calhoun had made such progress that the board gave him the go ahead to work on various other exhibits. The mine opened on schedule on October 31, 1950. Some six thousand people went through the new exhibit that day.

Jim Calhoun was made full director of the museum in August 1951. It was a position he would hold for the next twenty-two years. He was an active director, who did a little bit of everything. He constructed display cases, designed exhibits, participated in archaeological digs, and roughed out plans for the Guild Annex, in addition to his daily administrative duties. During his tenure the museum made great strides forward. Under his leadership, the department of natural history in 1953, and the department of anthropology in 1959, came into existence. In the 1950s a mobile museum was created to tour the state’s school system. The Nevada State Museum was one of the first state museums to initiate a mobile unit program. Under Calhoun’s direction the museum’s focus changed from that of an institution interested only in displaying historic relics to one interested in research and in educating the public.

Calhoun discusses his working relationship with Judge Guild: Guild handled political affairs and fundraising, and Calhoun took care of museum operations. Under Calhoun’s direction the museum gained national recognition. In 1972, it was accredited by the prestigious American Association of museums, officially establishing it as a professional institution of the highest quality. The board of trustees honored Jim Calhoun for his loyalty, hard work and devotion to the museum by naming the new wing the James W. Calhoun Annex.

When Calhoun retired in 1973, Governor Mike O’Callaghan made a special visit to the museum to pay his personal respects. The governor praised Calhoun for his personal role in the development of the museum.

The legacy of Jim Calhoun is still present today at the museum. The mine is considered the best exhibit in the museum and one of the finest of its kind in the nation. Many of the displays that Jim Calhoun had a hand in planning are still an important part of the museum: the bird and mammal galleries, the paleontology gallery, the Indian camp scene and the history gallery. The museum owes a great deal to this man.

This introduction and oral history is reprinted with permission from the University of Nevada Oral History Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno.

Geographic Area: 

Article Locations

Related Articles

None at this time.

Further Reading

None at this time.