Art Works Blog

Blue Star Museums Spotlight on the Washington State Historical Society

Founded in 1891, the Tacoma-based Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) describes its mission as "connecting personal, local, regional, and national stories to the universality of the human experience." With permanent exhibits such as the Great Hall of Washington History, WSHS--which has participated in Blue Star Museums since the program's inauguration--takes a historic yet intimate look at the state's evolution. Featured exhibitions also look at issues of both regional and national importance. On view through September 6, The American Soldier, chronicles the experiences of the men and women who have served our country through a selection of vivid photographs drawn from various sources, including news coverage. Opening today, In the Spirit, is a celebration of contemporary Native-American artworks and artists.

We spoke with WSHS Marketing and Communications Director Kimberly Wirtz to learn more about what to see at the museum, how to prepare to get the most of out of a visit, and why the museum keeps returning to the Blue Star Museums program.

a dark red-bricked factory like space that houses the museum with a highway running in front of it

A view of the Washington State Historical Society. Photo courtesy of WSHS.

NEA: Why is Blue Star Museums an important program for the Washington State Historical Society?

KIMBERLY WIRTZ: The Washington State Historical Society not only represents a state that has a large military population statewide, but it is also located in the Puget Sound, where Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the largest employer. It is our responsibility and honor to serve this population by making Washington history as accessible as possible while actively engaging our service members and their families during the time that they call Washington home.

NEA: What do you want people to know about WSHS? What's unique about WSHS?

WIRTZ: The Historical Society has collected, preserved, and interpreted Washington’s past for 125 years. We are the premiere resource for Washington history and play a key role in educating our kids in their common past. We’re not a stuffy history museum. While we certainly maintain scholarly collections and exhibits, we also look to be innovative, creative, and contemporary in our exhibits, programs, and presentations. We look to engage visitors with history, not just tell them about it.

NEA: What's your favorite piece in the collection, and why?

WIRTZ: This is a tough question because we have thousands of amazing artifacts, photographs, ephemera, documents, and more. Some capture pop culture and some capture significant political and social issues, such as same-sex marriage and Native American rights. I think, though, that a favorite of mine is one of the parachutes given to infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper in 1971. That story is not only a significant piece of history, but is still an actively debated piece of local lore.

NEA: What is a must-see when visiting the museum and/ or what's one of the unsung treasures at WSHS?

WIRTZ: A must-see is our Great Hall of Washington History, which chronicles Washington’s development from geographic formation to modern times. Over 20,000 school children visit this permanent exhibit every year. One of the unsung treasures is a piece of the original Narrows Bridge, which everyone knows as Galloping Gerty.

soldiers in combat fatigues fighting their way across a bridge

U.S. troops battle their way across a bridge amid shouted orders and heavy enemy fire in an early fight in Baghdad. Photo by Kuni Takahashi/Boston Herald

NEA: One of your current exhibitions is The American Soldier. What inspired this exhibit? What do you want visitors that you want visitors to know about the exhibit?

WIRTZ: The American Soldier is a traveling exhibit curated by Cyma Rubin, and it shows the experience of the American Soldier over the past 150 years--from the Civil War to the War in Iraq. It was a natural fit to host this exhibit since we are in the middle of such a strong military community. Cyma was inspired by a single photo she saw that sparked a long search through thousands of photographs to collect the 116 that are on display here. Each photo is oversized so the visitor can really feel the emotion on the faces of the subjects in the image. It helps put a timeless face on photos as far back as the Civil War. The exhibit honors veterans and shows humor, sacrifice, and victory, as experienced by our soldiers in conflict.

We are offering a variety of programs associated with The American Soldier, including a discussion of the unique influence of PTSD in Native-American veterans as well as presentations about women in the military, WWII history, and music of the Civil War.

NEA: How can families prepare to visit the museum? What are one or two tips for getting the most out of a visit to WSHS?

WIRTZ: Families should allow two to three hours to fully experience the museum on their visit. They can go online to to see our calendar of events, get directions and parking information, and learn about the exhibits currently on display. They should also download a free mobile application called STQRY, which will provide exhibit content and wayfinding information at their fingertips.

NEA: What's your favorite Blue Star Museum (next to WSHS, of course) and why?

WIRTZ: I have two--Tacoma Art Museum and Museum of Glass. We are located within walking distance of five other world-class museums in what we call the Tacoma Museum District. Both the art museum and glass museum are close by, have amazing exhibits, and participate in Blue Star Museums.

NEA: Is there anything you'd like to add?

WIRTZ: Another really wonderful exhibit currently on display is In The Spirit Contemporary Native Arts Exhibit. It is the 10th anniversary of this opportunity to showcase contemporary Native-American artists. Pieces range from more traditional native themes to more modern concepts and issues. Part of that exhibit is a festival and market that is free to everyone on August 8. It is from 12 – 7pm and we’ll have Native-American performers, an artist vendor market, artist gallery talks, and carving demonstrations. It’s a treasured tradition here in Tacoma.

Can't make it to the Washington State Historical Society this summer? They offer discounted admission to members of the military yearround as well as free admission to veterans on Veterans Day.

Interested in visiting other museums in the state of Washington? Read about Tacoma's Museum of Glass here and Seattle's Henry Art Gallery here.

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