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Local small town museums face several threats, modern-day perils

The Suciasaurus rex on display at Seattle's Burke Museum. (Burke Museum)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impacts, including threatening the future of small town museums. These museums are full of history, passion, and unique artifacts, but they’re in peril.

14 odd finds in Seattle area museums

People like historians, journalists, and educators work to document and tell us about the past, at times inspiring us to do our own explorations. One of those people is a longtime local journalist named Jeff Burnside, who wrote a story for The Seattle Times’ Sunday magazine about local museums.

“I’m writing a book about an eccentric pioneer in the Palouse named Cashup Davis,” Burnside said about his inspiration for this article. “He’s the guy, you may know, who, incredibly, in 1888 built a five-star hotel on the top of Steptoe Butte when there was only just a few scattered white settlers in the region.”

“So that forced me to go into some small town museums in that area to start looking for more stuff about Cashup Davis,” he added.

Historians had told him it’s all online, but he says he wanted more.

“I wanted the emergence. So I went into these small town museums, into their basements, into the store rooms, and I got so much more out of it by actually visiting there in person,” Burnside said.

These small museums are in trouble because of the pandemic closures, he admits, but were also struggling before COVID-19.

“There’s several threats that they’re facing,” Burnside explained. “One is this digital world is making them less relevant. There’s no question that not everybody is like me … that prefers to go inside. And so when their pictures get posted online, there’s less need to go visit them in person.”

The small museums do have some artifacts that can’t be transferred to the online world, however.

“And then the pandemic has shut them down. A lot of them depend on fundraisers, on modest little fees as you walk in the door, and so a lot of them are hurting in that regard. So this has been a double challenge for them,” he added.

The third threat is that many small towns themselves are threatened economically, especially in farming communities.

“So as the tax base in those small counties and small cities gets impacted because of the economy, then the tax funding for these museums are also threatened,” Burnside said.

Who was ‘Burke’ of the Burke Museum?

Both Feliks Banel, KIRO Radio’s resident historian, and Burnside recognized that you’re often the only person when you visit these small museums, and the volunteers or docents are often grateful for a chance to share their stories.

Feliks added that there seems to be a generational divide, regardless of the pandemic, where a lot of small, local museums are run by older people. And the next generation doesn’t seem to be coming up to take over.

“The demographics is definitely an issue,” Burnside agreed. “And I’m sure anybody who’s involved with history can bemoan this fact that young people aren’t as interested in history, probably by nature, as others would hope they would be.”

“As I wrote in the story, in one case there is a small town museum expert who called a small town museum, they were closed, and the guy on the phone said, ‘Well, can you be here in 10 minutes? I’ll meet you there and unlock it for you,'” Burnside recalled. “So this is an example of how thrilled they are to have people come visit, which just really makes it more special.”

The people showing you around these museums often have relatives on the walls or in the displays, he added, which is an additional element of pride.

What can you do to help keep these museums alive?

“The Washington State Historical Society … [has] plenty of grant funding available for some of these town museums. Also, counties like King County have a portion of the tax base that goes to fund them,” Burnside said. “Many times the town museums are so small and so much a volunteer run operation that they’re not aware of the grants, or don’t have the time to fill out the often voluminous paperwork that’s involved.”

The regular, consistent tax funding is critical, Burnside noted.

“A lot of times the buildings themselves are donated and given to the museum, so that takes a big mortgage issue off the plate for them,” he said. “And then getting the younger people involved, getting the school kids involved, partnering with some of the local towns. … every town has a Pioneer Days, or a Founders Day … Making sure that the museum is critically a part of that also helps you very, very much. But having also a diversified funding base, getting not just donations at the door, but local businesses to help donate as well.”

Hopefully, especially after the pandemic, people will want to see things in real life, in person, and not just online.

“Bainbridge Island is doing a great job of that,” Burnside said. “They have a really, really wonderful museum whose run by a woman who used to be with the Smithsonian in D.C., so she brings the big picture mentality to a smaller, more nimble museum. And they have done a great job of actually going out and curating and collecting COVID-19 elements to put into future exhibits.”

“They also have people in the community who have participated in telling their history,” he added.

Read Jeff Burnside’s full article online here.

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