Dean Kahn

History exhibits returning to Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall

David Miller installs a ship’s bell in the new maritime history exhibit at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall building Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. The museum is celebrating its 75th anniversary with an open house Thursday, Aug. 11.
David Miller installs a ship’s bell in the new maritime history exhibit at Whatcom Museum’s Old City Hall building Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. The museum is celebrating its 75th anniversary with an open house Thursday, Aug. 11. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Local history is making a comeback at Whatcom Museum, with two new permanent exhibits in the museum’s Old City Hall building to be unveiled during an open house Thursday, Aug. 11, to celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary.

That day, people can tour all three museum buildings — Old City Hall, Lightcatcher and Syre Education Center – for free from noon to 8 p.m. Along with current and new exhibits, there will be art activities, contests, music, curator- and docent-led tours, presentations and food trucks.

The new history exhibits reflect three years of planning and fundraising.

“This has been long in the making,” said Patricia Leach, executive director.

The exhibits should please history buffs who complain the museum has given local history short shrift in recent times.

Seventy-five years ago, Bellingham Public Museum opened in Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St. That was 1941, two years after city government moved to the current City Hall at 210 Lottie St.

At first, the museum displayed artifacts, relics of pioneer life and an ornithological collection from the museum’s first director, John Edson. Over time, the museum built up its collection and staged both history and art exhibits, as reflected in its later name, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

In 2003, the last time the museum went through its periodic accreditation review, the museum was chastised for the poor state of its history exhibits in Old City Hall and Syre Education Center, Leach said.

Seven years ago, the focus for art exhibits shifted when the museum’s state-of-the-art Lightcatcher building opened at 250 Flora St. Meanwhile, plans to 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.

The new history exhibits help celebrate the museum’s diamond anniversary and put it on firmer ground for the museum’s accreditation review next year, Leach said.

New history exhibits

The history exhibits are being designed by Victoria Blackwell, who recently moved to Bellingham after curating exhibits and collections for Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor and consulting for a museum in Sonoma, Calif.

One exhibit, immediately to the right inside the Old City Hall entrance, is designed to introduce people to the history of the area and to early Bellingham and Old City Hall itself. The exhibit features artifacts – antique police equipment, a Native American totem, early city documents, pioneer housewares – plus a 17-minute video narrated by Jeff Jewell, the museum’s photo archivist.

The other new exhibit, in a second-floor gallery, showcases local maritime history. Artifacts include part of a Native American canoe, maritime documents and a cedar canoe from the 1920s. A series of video screens will circulate historic photographs about sawmills, canneries, Native American fishing, commercial fishing, tall ships and steamships.

The top part of two gallery windows will have old photographs showing Bellingham’s waterfront from the 1890s, so people can compare the waterfront then with the matching waterfront view visible through the window.

Several hands-on activities are designed to captivate children. They will be able to raise and lower a crab pot to put in and take out stuffed toy crabs, to lift and lower weights with different block-and-tackle configurations and to place and move magnetic boats, fish, birds, crabs and other nautical items on a waterfront mural.

“I did it in Gig Harbor and kids loved it,” Blackwell said.

More history exhibits in the works

Several more history exhibits will open in the coming months.

The third-floor of Old City Hall, where a clock-and-watch collection used to be on display, will house many of the birds from the museum’s extensive collection in the Syre Education Center. The museum is working with North Cascades Audubon Society to develop education materials about bird watching and bird habitat.

Also coming is an exhibit about Bellingham, from pioneer times to the present, in the south and west galleries on the first floor of Old City Hall; and an exhibit, with learning space for children, about Native Americans, in the upstairs gallery at the Lightcatcher.

Years ago, with the focus on the Lightcatcher, the museum changed its name to Whatcom Museum. Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, the sign outside Old City Hall still reads “Whatcom Museum of History & Art.”

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291

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