Monday, January 30th, 2017
Art, Nature, History, and Fun at Whatcom Museum in Bellingham
Lorraine Wilde
Whatcom Museum C9 Photography Old City Hall

Whatcom Museum’s iconic Old City Hall building built in 1892. Photo by C9 Photography.

Centered in Bellingham’s downtown arts district, the Whatcom Museum campus provides creative, thought-provoking educational programs and exhibitions about our changing cultural, natural, and historical landscapes. Recently celebrating its 75th Anniversary in 2016, Whatcom Museum continues to bring art, history, and nature to more than 70,000 people each year. Visitors can plan a day or weekend visit around their iconic buildings, first-class art exhibitions, extensive collections, and varied educational programs that serve patrons of all ages.

I recently spent the afternoon wandering through the exhibits. While there, I learned about Bellingham’s rich history and how much has changed, and was also able to appreciate the art, history, and culture of other countries in my own backyard.

The Whatcom Museum Campus

The Whatcom Museum campus encompasses three buildings. Bellingham’s Old City Hall building, first built in 1892, is the Victorian-style red brick building that is most identified in photos of the City of Bellingham. After a valiant public battle to save the building from demolition, the museum’s first director, volunteer John M. Edson, helped open the building as the Bellingham Public Museum in 1941. It is now home to a wide array of historic photography exhibitions on the main floor. The second floor Allsop Gallery highlights Bellingham’s maritime heritage. From early steam ships, to fisheries, to notable schooners off the shores of Bellingham Bay, the gallery connects visitors to Bellingham’s waterfront history through photographs, artifacts, interactive exhibits, and model ships.

The adjacent Syre Education Center, built in 1926 as the City of Bellingham’s fire hall, now  includes classroom space and permanent historical exhibits for group tours and school field trips. As a parent volunteering in my child’s classroom, I’ve toured the long-time exhibits on the main floor that include “Northwest Coast First Nations,” “Pioneer Life,” and “Logging.” Perhaps the most striking is the ornithological collection made up of both the personal collection of Edson and additional collections that he acquired historically. The collection was first displayed in the Old City Hall Building and was later moved to Syre where it has been known as “Birds of the Pacific Northwest.” In spring 2017, Whatcom Museum is partnering with the North Cascades Audubon Society, to move some to the third floor of Old City Hall for a new exhibit, the John M. Edson Hall of Birds, highlighting Pacific Northwest flyway zones, migration patterns, threatened and endangered status, notes from Edson, and more.

Syre’s second floor is also home to Whatcom Museum’s widely recognized Photo Archives, which are open to the public for research. I myself have chosen historic photos from the archives to copy and give as gifts during the holidays.


Whatcom Museum Lightcatcher

Whatcom Museum’s LEED Silver Certified Lightcatcher Building presents art exhibitions and is home to the Family Interactive Gallery (FIG).

The third building included in Whatcom Museum’s campus, the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora Street,  was built in 2009. It is named for its translucent wall that is 37 feet high and 180 feet long that brings in lots of glorious sunlight. The 42,000-square-foot-building integrates natural materials native to the region and is the first museum in Washington designed and registered to LEED Silver-Level specifications. The building was needed to provide climate control and security for the rotating schedule of national and international art exhibitions it hosts throughout the year. It includes a green roof, rain water recapture system, and eco-bathrooms. Part of Lightcatcher is also home to the Family Interactive Gallery (FIG) described in more detail below, a great educational resource to families with children under nine.

One admission gets you into the Lightcatcher, Old City Hall, and the Syre Education Center when they are open. Artifacts Wine Bar, a vendor in the Lightcatcher Building, allows for a refreshment on site.

Current Exhibitions

The Katrina Decade: Images of An Altered City

January 14 – May 14, 2017
Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora Street

Katrina Hurricane Whatcom Museum New Orleans

Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans as captured by photographer David G. Spielman.

Traveling to the Whatcom Museum, courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, the collection marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and includes the release of the book and exhibition The Katrina Decade: Images of an Altered City. Photographer David G. Spielman documents through black-and-white images of New Orleans the destruction by Hurricane Katrina and the lack of rebuilding and recovery that persist in many neighborhoods since Katrina’s landfall. The slow decay of architecture and a rapid growth of plant life are central themes. The exhibit carries even more of a punch for me since my book club read Zeitoun, an account by a Muslim New Orleans resident of his ordeal in experiencing Katrina and dealing with the aftermath in the first year post-Katrina, as retold by Dave Eggers.

Images of Resilience: Chicano Art and Its Mexican Roots

February 4 – May 28, 2017
Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora Street

La Alameda Alfredo Arreguin Chicano art Whatcom Museum

La Alameda by Alfredo Arreguin.

Images of Resilience highlights the development of Chicano art from its beginnings in Mexican art of the early 1900s to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s, to its relevance today. The exhibition shows how Chicano art has influenced community building, history-making, and cultural citizenship for Mexican-Americans and Chicanos.

The exhibit has two distinct gallery sections. One focuses on Mexican art trends in the early 1900s that were inspired by the European Academic styles of the time and how, after the revolution in 1910, that art was transformed by the ‘Three Greats’ or Los Tres Grandes: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. These three internationally prominent artists were originally hired by the Mexican government in the 1920s to create identifiably Mexican art.

The second gallery section features art that arose within the U.S. from the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Their work was inspired by a cultural reclamation and struggle for social justice. Inspired by styles created post-revolution, this era of Chicano art deals with themes of former rural lives—agriculture, religious holidays, folk heritage—and the new urbanized lives that the Mexican-Americans were living, shown through pop culture, cars, and Hollywood iconography. Their new style of art emphasized their cultural roots with a respect for non-Spanish traditions and instilled a patriotic pride in the Mexican people. The collection is wide ranging, including works from across the U.S. including California and Seattle, made up of drawings, paintings, altars, and sculpture. The Seattle-based artists will attend and speak on opening night.

Seeing the exhibit presented as these two distinct segments of history allows us to witness the historical shift from European Academic styles to what we consider traditional Mexican art today, including illustrations of skeletons, or calaveras.

I plan to take my art-loving teens to this exhibit. While they learn more about Mexican and Chicano cultures and appreciate the vibrance of the modern pop styles and calaveras, I’ll be drawing their attention to the parallels between the Chicano and African-American civil rights movements, and the current clash over civil rights in our country today.

Upcoming Exhibitions

Whatcom Museum is continually scheduling and bringing new works and exhibits to Whatcom County. Because some exhibits are scheduled only a few months ahead of time, it is best to check the web site for upcoming exhibitions when scheduling your visit. I’m excited for the Bellingham National 2017 Juried Art Exhibition and Awards in summer 2017 that is accepting drawing submissions that can include multi-media from across the country. In mid-March 2017 an exhibit will honor the 50th Anniversary of Whatcom Community College. Rooted, Revived, and Reinvented: Basketry in America will begin in February 2018.

Family Interactive Gallery (FIG)

Lightcatcher building | 250 Flora Street

Whatcom Museum Family Interactive Gallery

Hilary Parker’s article Sharing art, science and history with kids at the Whatcom Museum describes the Family Interactive Gallery in more detail. This part of the museum welcomes all ages but is ideal for ages of about two to nine. Entry is included with general admission to the museum and is free to members. Children and their guardians and parents are invited to explore an assortment of craft-making materials to paint, color, cut, draw, or sculpt. Emphasis is also given activities that enrich STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) experiences. Programs evolve weekly so check their schedule to see what your little ones will appreciate.

Family interactive gallery Whatcom Museum Bellingham

Whatcom Museum’s Family Interactive Gallery (FIG) provides educational programs and fun to children ages two to nine.

Whatcom Museum offers art, nature, history, and diverse cultural experiences that are approachable by patrons of any age or background. Its a perfect day or weekend trip on its own, or one can schedule a week-long or month-long visit to take advantage of the theaters and music of the surrounding arts district.

For more ideas see our Museums and Galleries page.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:

Lorraine Wilde has immersed herself in so many of Whatcom County’s vibrant communities over the past 25 years. Owner and Publicity Strategist for Wilde World Communications, Lorraine has connected with locals as a writer, actor, scientist, teacher, filmmaker, singer, and mom. Lorraine has performed improv and staged works in several of Whatcom County’s theatres and she is active in the Bellingham Film community. She is also a big supporter of the local music community. When she has a spare second, its spent with her children outside exploring a new adventure.