I wrote on November 30, 2015, that the best state museums that I’ve seen are in Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Well, I have another to add to this list–Washington. What makes this surprising to me is that Washington is my adopted state. I’ve been here for 12 years, and I didn’t know about this museum until now. Perhaps that’s because, unlike the others mentioned above, it’s not in our state’s capital city. The Washington State History Museum is in downtown Tacoma.
I knew that Washington was extremely diverse but didn’t know exactly why until I spent time in the Washington State History Museum’s Volcano Room. Because we sit atop so many potentially active volcanoes, we are prone to frequent earthquakes, and I can see Mount St. Helens from my neighborhood. I didn’t realize, however, that the Southern Cascades, its location, is one of Washington’s 9 geological regions. The others are The Olympic Mountains, the Portland Basin, the Puget Lowland, the Willapa Hills, the Northern Cascades, the Columbia Basin, the Blue Mountains, and the Okanagan Highlands. Each of these has its specialties. The Highlands, for example, is where apples grow in abundance. It’s stunning diversity accounts for Washington’s inexhaustible number of beautiful places to visit.
The Washington State History Museum is about 80% traditional. Its permanent display begins with the Chinook tribe meeting Lewis and Clark and proceeds chronologically through this state’s fairly distinct history. This beginning is appropriate, if unexceptional. Lewis and Clark, after all, reached the terminus of their epic journey in Washington. A very traditional diorama shows William Clark talking to his Nez Perce guide Twisted Hair. Twisted got that name because his Native American name, Walammottinin, meant “forelock bunched and tied”. Twisted’s motives went beyond friendliness. Fur traders like the main characters in The Revenant, a movie that’s about to open and win lots of awards, were giving guns to the Blackfeet. The Nez Perce could not leave their villages without danger or hunt buffalo. What always makes a place like this museum valuable is that we, being human, distort or forget so much history. Our minds need constant refreshing.
I was reading about Josette Work, who certainly had the right last name after she married John Work when she was 15, when Ruth came to get me. Josette was the daughter of a French fur trapper. Her mother was Nez Perce. While having 11 children, Josette made moccasins, repaired canoes, gathered food etc. Ruth, as is her habit in museums, wanted to show me something she had found, the Washington State Product Tree. Besides apples and airplanes (Boeing), Washington has been logged since settlers arrived to find an abundance of old-growth forest. The product tree contains about 80 objects made in Washington’s wood products industry. The tree is unique.
The histories of three Washington cities–Walla Walla, Spokane, and Tacoma–get extensive coverage in this museum. But not Seattle. After a while I began actively looking for something, anything, about it. Because I found nothing, I asked about Seattle on the way out and was told that every 2 years another area of the permanent exhibits is refreshed. The Petroglyph Theater, First People’s, and Shaping a New World section, for example, is all new. The 2 areas being considered for updating include Modern Washington. Seattle will most likely get covered here.
That’s about the only part of my state’s vivid history that isn’t well-detailed in Tacoma’s Washington State History Museum.