Dean Kahn

New history galleries coming to Bellingham’s Old City Hall

Laura Matusek looks at historic photos by Darius Kinsey at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall building on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. The canoe was made in 1927 in Tacoma. New history galleries will be installed in the building this year and in 2017.
Laura Matusek looks at historic photos by Darius Kinsey at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall building on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. The canoe was made in 1927 in Tacoma. New history galleries will be installed in the building this year and in 2017. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

New installations will provide more history displays later this year at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall building.

Several of the changes should be completed by summer and fall, coinciding with the museum’s 75th anniversary this year, said Patricia Leach, the museum’s executive director.

The 1892 landmark at 121 Prospect St. initially served as the City Hall for the pioneer town of New Whatcom. Fairhaven and New Whatcom merged in 1904 and took the name of Bellingham, but the towering building remained the seat of municipal government until 1939, when the current City Hall opened for public business on nearby Lottie Street. Two years later, in 1941, Old City Hall became home to a county museum.

In its museum heyday, Old City Hall presented both art and history exhibits. But the center of art exhibits shifted a few blocks when the museum’s state-of-the-art Lightcatcher building opened seven years ago at 250 Flora St.

Meanwhile, plans to quickly refurbish Old City Hall with a stronger history focus fell victim to the crunch of getting the Lightcatcher going and to the twin punches of the recession and city budget cuts.

Then, in late 2013, a museum consultant interviewed local educators, tribal members, historians and Audubon Society members about revitalizing Old City Hall and the museum’s adjacent Syre Education Center.

Leach has said some of the permanent exhibits in Old City Hall and the Syre Center are antiquated and don’t convey a good sense of the region’s history.

Changes this year include new exhibits about Old City Hall and the area’s maritime history, and expanded display space for the museum’s bird collection.

To improve displays in the near term, gallery space on the main floor of Old City Hall will have an exhibit about the history of the building. Also, a small gallery on the second floor, a space with windows overlooking Bellingham Bay, will become an exhibit about the area’s maritime history.

Those two changes should be finished by next fall, Leach said.

On the third floor, display cases now filled with old tools and with items from the West Coast Clock & Watch Museum soon will be vacant. In their place, some of the stuffed birds from the museum’s popular ornithology collection will be installed there. Members of the North Cascades Audubon Society are helping with that project, Leach said.

The rest of the museum’s bird collection will remain in the Syre Center. In its early days, the museum’s largest display was the bird collection that belonged to John Edson, who led the campaign to create a public museum in Bellingham.

The Syre Center was closed to regular public viewing about a decade ago, although group visits still occur and the center is open to the public on occasion.

The migration of some of the stuffed birds from Syre to Old City Hall should be finished by late fall, Leach said.

Looking ahead into 2017, one part of Old City Hall’s first floor will become a gallery for changing history exhibits, and another first-floor space will become an “orientation gallery” where visitors, newcomers to the area, and other people can learn about the region, Leach said.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

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