Tuesday, January 15th, 2019
Art, Nature, History, and Fun at Whatcom Museum in Bellingham
Lorraine Wilde

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. After 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.

Old City Hall is filled with cultural and historical gems like this exhibit on the history of logging in Whatcom County. Photo by Beau Gaughran.

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’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.

Current Exhibitions


People of Sea and Cedar: A Journey Through the Tribal Cultures and History of the Northwest Coast

On the second floor of the Lightcatcher Building is wonderful new exhibit featuring cultural artifacts and recent history of two Northwest Coast tribes indigenous to the land that is known to us as Whatcom County. The Lummi and Nooksack tribes continue to be vibrant, living cultures. Upon walking into this exhibit, the visitor is greeted in the Lummi language through recording by a Lummi Nation student. The gallery continues with exquisite hand-made cedar hats, bent wood boxes, canoes, carvings and woven blankets. Key videos allow elders to relate oral histories of their families and their ancestors. Hands-on learning activities are also offered for youth. This is an excellent learning opportunity for all ages.

The People of the Sea and Cedar exhibit explores the history of two Northwest Coast tribes indigenous to the land known to us as Whatcom County. Photo by Beau Gaughran.

Jan. 19 – April 14, 2019

Washington Remembers WWII: Their Sacrifice, Our Freedom

Before they liberated concentration camps or freed countries from tyranny, men and women in uniform fought enemy forces everywhere — in factories on the Washington home front and on beaches abroad. They braved the unknown, lived through the unthinkable, and changed who we are. Washington Remembers WWII features emotion-packed stories documenting the personal experiences of men and women from Washington State who fought for freedom on the battlefield and on the home-front.

This Legacy Washington exhibit was created through the Office of the Secretary of State to honor the tens of thousands of Washingtonians who served in the war.

“The profiles allow World War II veterans a chance to share stories that haven’t been told. The time to hear their stories is now. Every three minutes in this country, we lose a World War II veteran. These heroes offer first-hand accounts of the war, a personal perspective to history, that we can’t afford to lose,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

In addition to the Legacy stories, the exhibit will highlight a variety of World War II artifacts, documents, and historic photographs from the Whatcom Museum’s collection, bringing a localized perspective into the narrative. The exhibit will be on display at the Museum’s Old City Hall building.

February 2 – May 19, 2019

Bellingham National Juried Art Exhibiton and Waters, Water’s Edge: Landscapes for Today

The Whatcom Museum presents the third biennial Bellingham National Juried Art Exhibition and Awards, Water’s Edge: Landscapes for Today, at the Lightcatcher building. Juried by Bruce Guenther, Adjunct Curator for Special Exhibitions at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Bellingham National 2019 will feature the work of 59 artists from across the United States. Guenther describes the exhibition as, “An effort through the jury pool at representing the investigation of contemporary art practices which address our collective understandings of the Earth, climate change, and the evolving relationships of humanity to Nature. The works range from traditional interpretations of the observed landscape to the metaphoric and spiritual manifestations of landscape through image, color, language, and the mapping of our felt responses to nature and the world.”

Selected artworks span a broad range of media, from watercolor to oil painting, photography to collage and fiber art; and styles of working from hyperrealism to abstraction. The works selected by Guenther reflect the artists’ myriad responses to both natural or man-made landscape forms. Artists featured in the exhibition come from across the country, including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.

Family Interactive Gallery (FIG)

The Family Interactive Gallery. Where kids learn through play! Photo by Beau Gaughran

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, located inside the Lightcatcher building at 250 Flora Street, 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.

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.

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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.