Take a good look around downtown Minneapolis. Admire the skyscrapers, walk the skyways, take the measure of the giant bubble gridiron on the south end and the snazzy new diamond to the north.

Then head to the Hennepin County Government Center and see what downtown used to look like, back when grand buildings of rough-hewn stone still dominated and fine dining was limited to a few vintage but cherished restaurants.

For the rest of the month, "Downtown: A Photographic Memoir," an exhibit of photographs and artifacts from downtowns in Minneapolis and a few suburbs, will be on display in the Hennepin Gallery on the lower level of the Government Center.

It's an exhibit organized by the Hennepin History Museum, the county historical society that has its offices and galleries in a 91-year-old brick Renaissance mansion near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in south Minneapolis.

"It's a very fun exhibit for us to present to people because everyone finds it appealing in one way or another," said Jada K. Hansen, the museum's executive director.

And it's just one of a number of efforts by the museum to tell the multifaceted story of Minnesota's most populous county, which was created in 1852 -- only three years after the territory was formed and six years before statehood.

The museum is a nonprofit organization that isn't operated by the county but gets about 70 percent of its annual $250,000 budget from it. The museum's funding from the county declined by 4 percent this year, a cut that Hansen said she considered minimal given the demands on limited public dollars.

Cornfield in downtown

The county historical society was officially organized in 1938, although its collection had been building for years before that.

Visitors to the museum will find four galleries -- current exhibits include a look at children and another on Hennepin County movie theaters -- and a large research library with 200,000 photographs and collections of personal papers, documents, yearbooks and maps.

"Icons for the Bereaved," a popular exhibit now ending its run, featured a personal collection of photographs of loved ones in death, along with other items showing how people since the mid-1800s have mourned in times of loss.

The museum stores thousands of artifacts: furniture, ceramics, clothes and textiles, and toys among them.

And Hansen said it's not far off the mark to consider the museum a historical society for Minneapolis, as well as the county. The museum serves as the repository for Aquatennial items, including the crowns and gowns of its queens.

"Our collection is very strong with Minneapolis artifacts and archives," she said.

This fall, the museum will roll out treasured handiwork from its extensive collection of Dakota and Ojibwe objects, such as basketry, bead work, ceramics and costumes. The exhibit will kick off the museum's plans to display its curiosities -- intriguing, unusual or just plain odd things that will underscore the museum's rich and diverse collection.

The downtown exhibit, which has been on display at the museum for several months, includes photographs, maps, postcards, drawings and menus of yesteryear. One of the oldest photos shows the road that would become Washington Avenue looking like not much more than a cow path around 1850.

The exhibit also includes some historical items, such as a piece of the ornate iron rail from the Metropolitan Building, Minneapolis' first skyscraper, and a coffee can from Tooze's Delicatessen on Hennepin Avenue.

A large, two-color bird's-eye map of Minneapolis, circa 1891, shows the courthouse surrounded by little houses. There's even a small cornfield in what is now the downtown district, curator Jack Kabrud pointed out.

Kabrud admits that when he drives downtown, he sees buildings that are no longer there.

The exhibit, he said, "gives people a great sense of pride in where they live, when they can look back and see the grand scale of the city."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455