New history, nature exhibits in the works at Old City Hall


history museum

Cherie Stabel checks out the Edson-Edson-Booth Bird Collection in the Whatcom Museum Syre Education Center in Bellingham, Thursday, Oct 24, 2013. A new proposal would bring the bird collection into the museum's Old City Hall building.


New history and nature exhibits may be coming to Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall building in downtown Bellingham.

But museum fans will have to be patient; it could be several years before the exhibits are in place.

The 1892 landmark served as the museum's art gallery space until the $18 million state-of-the-art Lightcatcher building opened in November 2009 at 250 Flora St.

Plans to quickly refurbish Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St., fell victim to the crunch of getting the Lightcatcher going and to the twin punches of the recession and city budget cuts, said Patricia Leach, museum director. But with the Lightcatcher now firmly established, it's time to focus anew on the iconic building, she said.

"We have been so art-heavy," she said, "but we have to pay attention to the other aspects of our mission."

Over the past several months, Alice Parman, a museum consultant based in Eugene, Ore., has interviewed local educators, tribal members, historians and Audubon Society members about revitalizing Old City Hall and the museum's adjacent Syre Education Center. Their ideas, along with suggestions from museum staff, contributed to Parman's 12-page draft plan.

"The response was really excellent," she said. "It's obvious that people love the museum."

The plan envisions three new exhibitions on the first floor of Old City Hall. A "Whatcom County Experience" exhibit would introduce visitors to the region, and a smaller "Bellingham Gallery" exhibit would focus on city history, landmarks and stories.

The two exhibits would provide visitors with a much-needed overview, Leach said.

A third exhibit on the first floor, the "Community Gallery," would showcase exhibits developed in collaboration with community groups.

At the best museums, curators no longer merely collect items, interpret them and stash them under glass for viewing, Leach instead. Instead, museums are developing interactive exhibits that reflect close working ties with local residents and groups.

"Museums are much more community-based," Leach said. "Museums are about storytelling and you want to have other people's stories."

The plan would keep the second-floor Rotunda Room as a space for programs and performances. The partial third floor that overlooks the Rotunda Room would be revamped with a lively display of the museum's signature bird collection, now housed in the Syre Center, 201 Prospect St., which was closed to regular public viewing eight years ago.

In the plan, the Syre Center would be overhauled to provide better displays, with a focus on Northwest Indians, and with better classroom space for visits by students.

"It's quite a fabulous collection of things, but the space is very difficult to work in," Parman said.

Once the draft plan is finished, the museum will seek a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Leach said. The grant would pay for experts to develop exhibit content and conceptual drawings.

The museum would then seek a follow-up grant for more detailed preparations and possibly some construction costs, Leach said.

A community fundraising campaign would be part of the effort, she said, in part because Old City Hall needs about $2 million in upgrades, notably for a fire-suppression system, which it lacks.

The process could take several years, including time to develop staffing and operating plans for the new exhibits.

"We've got to make these exhibits meaningful," Leach said. "When you come to town there's no place to go where you can learn, 'Where am I?'"


Alchemy of Design, a Portland, Ore., firm, has created several preliminary drawings of new Whatcom Museum exhibits. You can see them at

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or

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