Lacey council’s vote was a win for preserving history. But what about Olympia?

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The Olympian editor Dusti Demarest explains the guidelines for submitting a Letter to the Editor to the newspaper.
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The Olympian editor Dusti Demarest explains the guidelines for submitting a Letter to the Editor to the newspaper.

A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a dust-up at a Lacey City Council meeting over whether to award a construction contract to build a replica of an 1894 train depot. The train depot prevailed in a 4-3 vote, overcoming objections to its $890,000 total cost.

The train depot will be adjacent to a new Lacey Historical Museum, which will be housed in a repurposed warehouse. The state legislature awarded $979,000 for the warehouse conversion project. Both will be next to a popular regional biking and walking trail, and the replica train depot will provide trail users and others with picnic tables and restrooms to lure them into soaking up some local history.

We think the Lacey City Council majority made the right decision. Preserving and promoting local history is a worthy use of our tax dollars, even when there are urgent competing priorities.

Learning local history makes us better citizens, and better people. Socrates’ injunction to “know thyself” requires knowing how we fit into the mosaic of our communities. We all live in the context of family, community, and history. And the more we know of our history, the better we know ourselves.

For example, local historian Shanna Stevenson points out that knowing the history of all the dredging and filling in downtown Olympia – and, we might add, all the gas stations and other activities that left polluted ground – is essential to understanding the challenges of current downtown development.

But going deeper, she also says that every time she walks near Tumwater Falls, she is moved by thoughts of all the people, over thousands of years, who have loved that place. She thinks of Squaxin and other Native people, of settlers, brewers, builders, families, and tourists. And she thinks about all the ways the falls have affected the evolution of Tumwater and the whole of the South Sound.

Erin Quinn Valcho, the Lacey Museum curator, sees local history both as something that belongs to all of us, and as “a way to open up empathy for other people by seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.” Her mission includes using local history as a way to widen the lens through which people see the world. For instance, when kids learn about how World War II affected people in Lacey, she says, their eyes are opened to local, national and global history all at the same time.

When people learn about Lacey’s history, they also learn why its civic identity is so different from Olympia’s. Quinn Valcho tells the story of Lacey’s incorporation in 1966, Olympia’s failed attempt to thwart it, and – over half a century later – the residue of tension that remains. Lacey’s first city hall, police and fire departments were all crowded into the modest historical home that currently houses the Lacey Museum; its first three police officers drove their own cars to save money. Lacey residents have long tended to view Olympia as a center of puffed up, free-spending politicians and people with pretensions to urban sophistication, in contrast to Lacey’s practical, thrifty, no-frills sensibilities.

The irony is that Lacey is exhibiting a far more sophisticated understanding of the importance of local history than Olympia is. Lacey’s museum has been in existence since 1980; Olympia doesn’t have one at all since the closure of the state capital museum in 2014, and that one was housed and paid for by the state, not the city.

Former Secretary of State Sam Reed finds Olympia’s lack of a museum incomprehensible. He sees local historical knowledge as essential to people feeling connected, volunteering, and participating in the life of our community. And he sees historical knowledge as the essential foundation of the future we are building together. In the absence of a good museum, he asks, “What understanding do we pass on to the next generation?”

Both Reed and Stevenson are board members of the Olympia Arts and Heritage Alliance, which is raising funds to support creation of an arts, cultures and heritage museum in the now-vacant former fire station and city hall at Fourth and State streets downtown. They are waiting for the city to issue a request for proposals on the use of the building, which seems to be a very slow process. Naturally, we wish the museum advocates speedy success.

It might be wrong to think of this as a museum competition between Lacey and Olympia — but if we did, Lacey would definitely be winning.

The more important point is the one made by Socrates. If we are ignorant of the history of the communities in which we live, we do not fully know who we are.