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She brought her passion for art to school children for more than 20 years

Mary Jo Maute, newly retired education and program coordinator at the Whatcom Museum, led thousands of Whatcom County school children through exhibition tours as part of the Museum’s ArtFUNdamentals program.
Mary Jo Maute, newly retired education and program coordinator at the Whatcom Museum, led thousands of Whatcom County school children through exhibition tours as part of the Museum’s ArtFUNdamentals program. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

For 21 years, Mary Jo Maute taught the history of the Northwest coastal people to thousands of Whatcom County school children, brought art to families experiencing homelessness, inspired high school students to consider careers in the arts, and taught adults painting and art techniques through various workshops. Last week, Maute, an education and program coordinator at the Whatcom Museum, retired but her legacy remains. Maute reflects on her time and experiences at the Whatcom Museum:

Question: What roles have you held throughout your time at the museum?

Answer: My role has been planning and presenting programs that relate to the permanent and special exhibitions, most often working with school groups to enhance the school curriculum. The school program that kept me the busiest since day one is the “People of the Sea and Cedar” tour and workshop. Pretty much every third grader in Whatcom County, and many from Skagit, Snohomish and Island counties, have benefited from this program. One would think that facilitating this program for 21 years would become tiring, but I have always loved working with children. The students leave with huge smiles, and teachers praise the program and return each year because it fits so perfectly with the Washington state education standards, and provides an authentic quality experience that is not replicable in classrooms.

Q: How has the education program changed through the years at the museum?

A: The new “People of the Sea and Cedar” exhibition is an excellent example of how educators and community members can support exhibition planning and design to make the museum experience accessible to all ages, backgrounds and learning styles. With thanks to Lummi and Nooksack elders, the exhibit includes language interactives, videos showcasing Lummi and Nooksack weavers and carvers, and presents the tribes as vibrant, living cultures.

Q: What has been one of your favorite programs offered at the museum?

A: I like most when I can use the exhibitions as a springboard for a creative collaborative project. These partnerships have helped to situate the museum as a vehicle to lift unheard voices and celebrate the diversity of creative disciplines in our community. In 2012 we partnered with Pam Kuntz, Western Washington University’s dance faculty and artistic director of Kuntz and Company, during the Leslie Dill exhibition. Together we created a site-specific dance in the gallery that was choreographed by Kuntz. The result was two sold out, spine-tingling performances with an original score and an outstanding cast of student and community dancers.

Q: What will you miss about working at the museum?

A: I will miss delving into each new exhibition to develop programs for school kids and adults that teach art skills, visual literacy and instill the pleasure and excitement of learning in a museum setting. It feels good to know you’ve ignited a spark in a young person that might set them on a lifelong journey as an artist, historian, bird-lover or culture vulture.

I feel so fortunate to have found a career that weaves together several of my passions – art, museums as a place of lifelong learning, and enrichment of the lives of our youth and community. After 28 years in the museum education field, it is time to pass the torch to the next generation of educators.

Christina M. Claassen is Whatcom Museum’s marketing and public relations manager. Reach her at cmclaassen@cob.org.

Whatcom Museum

The non-profit Whatcom Museum is operated by the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the city of Bellingham. The Old City Hall building at 121 Prospect St. and the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora St. are open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. The Family Interactive Gallery, located inside the Lightcatcher, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission, good for all sites in a day, is $10 general, $8 youth (6-17 years) and student, senior or military, $5 children (2-5 years). Memberships start at $50 and include free museum admission.

The museum offers a variety of programs and exhibitions about art, nature and Northwest history. Its collections contain more than 200,000 artifacts and art of regional importance, including a photographic archive. The museum is accredited nationally by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Institution Affiliate.

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