Updated: Feb 8, 2021
"We're a museum built by the people for the people." —Stephanie Lile
February 8, 2021
When I joined the Harbor History Museum staff as the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions in January 2017, I didn't expect to be wearing the director's hat four months later. But that's what happened. Four years ago, I'd never have guessed we'd be on month 13 of a global pandemic, but that's where we are. As we get the Museum ready to re-open (again), donning double masks and disinfectant, the Coronavirus is mutating into a more contagious version of the virus we thought would be dead and gone by now. And yet, we persevere. We persevere as other museums around the state close their doors forever. We persevere as quiet stewards of our community collections. We persevere because we believe that we must preserve our community memory, and that the knowledge of our past (however good, bad, or ugly) must be shared to gain a better understanding of our here and now.
Years ago, when I was doing school outreach as an Education Specialist at the Getty Museum and as the Education Director at the Washington State History Museum, I would often be lucky enough to help kids gain their first understanding of what a museum is. "How many of you collect things?" I'd ask. "And do you put your collection anywhere special to keep it safe?" Little "yeses" always echoed around the room. No matter whether they collected shells, squished pennies, marbles, baseball cards, or bugs, kids always got the analogy that museums were like their own collection's shoe boxes made large by a dosing of magic potion. I'd then ask the really tough questions: "How did you get your collection? Did someone give it to you? Did you buy it? Did you find it?" and lastly, "Would you let your best friend eat Cheetos and play with your favorite baseball card?" There were varied responses to the first set of questions, and for every gift, purchase, and "discovery" there is a corresponding answer for real-life museum collections. For the last question, the answer was always a resounding "No!"
We miss having kids in the museum. We miss having everyone in the museum. But we remain dedicated to teaching and learning for people of all ages. In the quiet of closure, we've fixed aging exhibits and sorted through new collections. Now, we're excited to welcome people back to the museum and to share our plans for the future.
Three main ideas have emerged for the museum through this pandemic. The first, is "Our museum is like Dr. Who's Tardis: so much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside." It's true, there is so much more happening, and so many more internal layers to what people see on our grounds and in our galleries. So much so, that I've made a personal commitment to sharing more of the behind-the-scenes guts and glory about what makes your Museum tick.
The second is that we can and need to do more virtual programming, or at least make virtual options available on a regular basis. This seems obvious, but sometimes an organization needs to be chased by a virus in order to make the changes needed when resources are scarce. We're happy to be launching this new website along with the Museum's new searchable collections site. We're also happy to have launched the Harbor Mystery Museum site, where much of our educational program materials will live. It's been fantastic to see our audience grow for virtual Humanities in the Harbor programs and to be able to feature speakers from distant places.
Lastly, as we continue our Access Initiative, we know we need to continue to cherish and build our community partnerships. In 2020, we were lucky enough to receive grants for operations from the Gig Harbor Garden Tour, the Greater Gig Harbor Foundation, Gig Harbor Rotary, CARES Act funding from HumanitiesWA, ArtsWA, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. These, coupled with funding for general public admission from the City, member contributions, and a PPP loan, got us through the year. Our capital project to conserve the Shenandoah and complete the Maritime Gallery was able to carry on, funded by the Washington State Heritage Capital Project Fund, Pierce County Historic Preservation funding, and a National Park Service grant naming FV Shenandoah an American Treasure. In 2021, we want to build stronger partnerships with Peninsula School District, the Puyallup and Nisqually Tribes, our park systems, and other local historical societies and museums. We look forward to continued partnerships with other extraordinary nonprofits such as Harbor WildWatch, Skansie Netshed, Gig Harbor BoatShop, and the Downtown Waterfront Alliance. If we look back to the key moments of the Harbor History Museum's past—its founding in 1964, it's first museum in 1976, and the opening of its permanent home in 2010—we see that we're truly a Museum built by the people for the people, and we're dedicated to keeping that promise.
As we move forward into 2021, I'll be sharing more about how we can all "do history" and learn the language of objects. I'll reveal the mysteries of museum funding, the nuances of preservation, and the recipes for concocting new exhibits. I hope you'll join me for all the wild and wonderful Adventures in Museumland on the road ahead.
Photo above: That's me, peering into the crew bay of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. I get a little obsessive about historical research and made the special trek to Arizona to fly in a B-25 while researching the exhibit "Bomber Boys: Portraits from the Front."