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.
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.
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.
People of Sea and Cedar: A Journey Through the Tribal Cultures and History of the Northwest Coast – Ongoing
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.
Family Interactive Gallery (FIG)
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 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.