The State Capital Museum in Olympia’s South Capitol neighborhood closed for repairs April 5. When the museum will reopen — and for what purpose — is very much up in the air.
This uncertainty places the capital city in a precarious position with nowhere to showcase capital city history other than the Bigelow House Museum, which focuses singularly on a prominent Olympia pioneer family.
Housed in the former Lord Mansion seven blocks south of the Capitol Campus, the State Capital Museum opened in 1942 and merged with the Washington State Historical Society in 1993. It’s had a low profile in the community in recent years with reduced public hours — overshadowed by the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, which opened in 1997, and further diminished by the transfer of documents, artifacts and photographs from the Capital Museum to Tacoma.
In fact, when the Olympia museum closed in April, it was only open to the public 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays.
The community has taken the State Capital Museum for granted, assuming it would be available to serve as a local history museum.
“But its fate has not been in our hands for years, and we have to accept the fact that as of now we have no local history museum,” Mark Foutch remarked to me in an email two weeks ago, before heading off to Italy. Foutch is the president of the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum, a recently merged local heritage group.
I asked Jennifer Kilmer, director of the State Historical Society, what the future holds for the State Capital Museum.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’re evaluating the impact of all the museum programs.” She said she will present a preliminary recommendation to the State Historical Society board of trustees when they meet June 21 in Tacoma.
Aside from traveling exhibits and semi-permanent exhibits on Native American and city of Olympia history, the State Capital Museum hosts several outreach programs, including the Women’s History Consortium, the Heritage Resource Center, National History Day and a Traveling Exhibits Service. Just shy of four full-time employees work there. The adjoining Coach House is also a venue for noon history talks and is available for community groups to rent for events.
All the programs, minus the museum public tours and gift shop, continue while contractors prepare to work on roofing, wiring, carpeting and kitchen repairs, relying on a portion of a $2.5 million capital budget the 2013 Legislature allotted to the state historical society.
The repairs are necessary to preserve the building, no matter what its future use might be, Kilmer said.
The writing might already be on the wall. When it looked like the 1063 Building on Capitol Way might meet the wrecking ball to make room for a new state Capitol Campus building to house the State Patrol, the state Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation looked at the Capital Museum as a possible place to relocate, state architectural historian Michael Houser said. The museum didn’t meet the agency’s needs, and the relocation has been delayed pending state funding of the new building.
“There’s no plan for anybody to move into the museum space at this time,” Kilmer said.
If the museum is on its last legs, this would be a good time for the Olympia Historical Society and Bigelow House Museum to fill the museum void. That would require more community support, including more members, support from the city of Olympia and the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association.
“We haven’t quite got that far yet, but we’d like to have a downtown space for exhibits and a separate archival space with climate controls and fire suppression,” noted Ed Echtle, Olympia Historical Society board member. He said the local history group plans a retreat in June to talk about its future.
The city of Olympia should play more of a role in preserving Olympia history, too. David Nicandri, a Tumwater resident and former director of the State Historical Society, agreed.
“The city of Olympia has gotten off easy over the years,” Nicandri said, referring to community reliance on the State Capital Museum. “It would be highly unusual for a capital city not to have a museum.”
Kilmer said the State Historical Society would be willing to work with Olympia-based history buffs on a community-themed museum. The state group could loan Olympia artifacts to a local history group or groups, if they had a secure place to exhibit them.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to care for the building (Lord Mansion),” Kilmer said. “Our mission is to preserve state history.
But whether that mission includes operating a museum in Olympia is an open question.