The fire is out, but Aberdeen Museum of History struggles to rebuild

Sep 15, 2021, 9:20 AM | Updated: 3:48 pm

It’s been more than three years since a fire destroyed the Aberdeen Armory and the history museum inside. And now, some Aberdonians are getting frustrated by delays in replacing it, and are holding a public meeting to clear the air and blaze a path forward.

This is a complicated story with a lot of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, along with a generous helping of small town politics. At the heart of it, however, are passionate people who care deeply about their community, and about a history museum and many priceless artifacts that were lost in the fire on June 9, 2018.

The 1922 Aberdeen Armory building was owned by the city, and the museum was run by a mostly volunteer group that founded it back in the late 1970s. Along with a display devoted to native son Kurt Cobain, there were all kinds of artifacts and photos, old fire engines, and stained glass windows. The setting itself, in the old gymnasium of the building, had high ceilings and ample space for displaying large artifacts. Much was destroyed, but a lot was salvaged, too, thanks to a massive recovery effort in the wake of the fire.

Nancy Cuyle is treasurer of the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum, and her late mother – who, as playground supervisor at Robert Gray Elementary often disciplined a young Cobain – was one of the founders. The Friends of the Aberdeen Museum were vital in creating the museum in the first place, and they remain an important part of the social fabric of the community – who lost their primary gathering place and reason-to-be when the museum was destroyed.

Because of this, Cuyle says, the Aberdeen Museum of History was more than just a room full of old stuff.

“It was just a little bit of everything, and it was just a remarkable building,” Cuyle told KIRO Radio. “And many people, after it burned and they saw the pictures of it, said, ‘Oh my, we didn’t make it to the museum. We always meant [to], but now we see what we missed.’”

In the three years since the fire, the cause of which remains unknown, the collection of surviving artifacts has remained out of sight, tucked into a warehouse rented by the city and off limits, for liability and other reasons, to the Friends.

The artifact embargo and the other tensions that were caused — or perhaps revealed — by the fire have contributed to a growing collection of misunderstandings, which can only partly be blamed on the pandemic. One issue has been the lack of a suitable replacement building to serve as a museum. The old armory was so badly damaged it had to be demolished, and a few possible new homes for the museum that have been checked out by the city have not panned out.

Cuyle says the Aberdeen City Council and Mayor Pete Schave – who was elected in November 2020, two years after the fire – have tried to help the situation, but there’s no denying the misunderstandings and friction generated by differing perspectives on how best to recover and move on after the fire.

“I believe that the intent of most of the city council members, they’re not against a museum,” Cuyle said. “They just didn’t know that the city had a moral obligation to provide for that. They just thought it would come from somebody else, and many of them thought that somebody else was the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum.”

Moral obligations can be hard to enforce in any public environment, but especially with so many competing demands for the time and attention of city officials, and competing demands for civic dollars.

“The mayor has tried to help us in several ways,” Cuyle continued. “But the last statement that he made to a group was that this museum was not a priority for him right now. And everybody jumped on that, so that became a very negative and divisive thing.”

Cuyle believes that when Mayor Schave said in July that the museum wasn’t a priority, he was misunderstood.

“I’m not sure that he meant that he was not interested in the museum,” Cuyle said. “It’s just that right now they have the [flood control] levy; they have the Gateway [tourism project]; the fire department wants a new fire station; the police department wants a police station; and the city’s in financial trouble.”

“So it’s just like [the museum is] one more thing that he just couldn’t handle all at the same time,” Cuyle said, her voice filling with emotion.

The history museum is an emotional topic for Nancy Cuyle and other members of the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum – as it is for many people in Aberdeen. And, as Cuyle points out, there are some big projects in the works in Aberdeen. It turns out that the insurance money from the Aberdeen Armory fire is already helping support at least two of them.

The City of Aberdeen was paid $23 million about a year ago for the loss of the Armory and its contents, including the museum and two other organizations: a senior center and a social service nonprofit called Coastal Community Action Program. So far, the city has allocated about $14 million of the fire insurance money to two major unrelated projects: construction of a flood control levy, and building a tourism and economic development project called the Gateway Center.

More than three years after the fire was put out, exactly how much of the $23 million is left over for possible use to create a new history museum is not quite clear.

Mayor Schave says the city has spent about $4,000 a month for the past few years renting the warehouse to store what remains of the museum collection, and some money was spent vetting those possible new homes.

“There was a total of about $3.5 million, $4 million, right in there, that went to the museum fund” from the $23 million insurance settlement, Schave told KIRO Radio. “And then it paid expenses, [and] I think at this point, they have about $1 million left.”

What the mayor says differs from what Cuyle says she was told.

“The city was also running in the red a little bit, and I believe they took another chunk of money to make this year’s budget hole,” Cuyle said. “In the end, out of the $23 million, the city treasurer told us there’s something less than $4 million left that’s uncommitted,” and that could be spent on a new museum.

In a follow-up call, Cuyle says the roughly $3 million difference between her interpretation and that of Mayor Schave is likely because that $3 million is being held as the city’s emergency reserve. Schave did not respond to a request for a follow-up interview.

While the various parties involved differ on how much they believe is left, Cuyle also believes the funds are not dedicated or restricted in any way for museum expenses; that is, there’s no guarantee that any further money from the fire settlement will be spent toward a new museum.

Along with Mayor Schave, the city council, and the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum, there’s one more party involved in the struggle to rebuild: a museum board appointed by the mayor.

John Shaw is chair of that board. He’s a longtime museum professional and, for his day job, he’s executive director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society, which is the maritime museum at the mouth of Grays Harbor in Westport. He’s also married to Dee Anne Shaw, president of the Aberdeen City Council.

John Shaw told KIRO Radio that even before the fire, the City of Aberdeen and former mayor Erik Larson were working with the Friends toward upgrading the museum and improving its collection and record-keeping policies and standards. When the old museum was still operating, the city provided the Friends with annual funding, and the thought was that the upgrades – and overall institutional evolution – would roll out gradually over several years.

The fire changed all that, and John Shaw and the city museum board want to take advantage of the opportunity created by the disaster to envision a new kind of museum  – with more staff and, eventually, with professional accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.

“The fire happened,” John Shaw said. “And as the new board came on, we basically got handed this situation, which was a very disorganized collection and a lack of documentation.”

Shaw says the city board doesn’t want to displace Nancy Cuyle and the other Friends, and they value the work the group has done over the decades, but they do want something different than what the city had before the fire – an institution that is professional and sustainable.

“The Friends are wonderful, well-meaning people,” John Shaw said. “[But] we need to have a newly-formed plan, a newly-formed way of looking at this museum going forward. And to affirm that, we want to have it based on feedback from the State Historical Society, and the State Archives, and museum professionals.”

“That’s our job as the city board to make sure that happens,” he continued. “And I will be honest, that is rubbing some people the wrong way. They feel that they own the collection or the collection is their duty, and it’s unfortunate. We don’t want to have to get into the how things were done in the past, and what was done.”

“We want to move forward based on a peer-reviewed, highly-refined, and well thought out plan,” Shaw said.

The city museum board, many of whom were appointed by Mayor Schave’s predecessor, is not without its own misunderstandings and its own friction with Schave.

Mayor Schave told KIRO Radio that he’s disappointed that the city museum board has not done any fundraising – specifically, they have not taken advantage of possible federal COVID relief dollars.

“That’s the frustrating thing with the city-appointed museum board,” Schave said. “They have not done anything to reach out for any of those dollars, and I told them that before, and they’ve never done that.”

“It’s just frustrating,” the mayor said.

John Shaw told KIRO Radio that the opposite is true about the city museum board and fundraising.

“He expressly disallowed us from doing any of those things,” Shaw said. “That’s just absolute baloney, … the idea that the museum … board should have been going out for outside grant funds related to anything. We have asked on a number of fronts to be able to go after things and have been precluded from doing anything that is any sort of grant request or outside activity.”

There’s a public meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Aberdeen Theatre, organized by the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum. It aims to address these and other misunderstandings in the community.

“We believe that there’s so much misunderstanding … that it is hard to see a way forward,” Cuyle said. “And so the purpose of the meeting is to just share information about how the museum got where it is, and what the different parties’ obligations are, in our opinion, and to get people’s feedback on how the community feels about a museum.”

John Shaw plans to attend, as does Dee Anne Shaw. Mayor Schave, who told KIRO Radio that he won’t be seeking reelection in 2024, probably won’t be there.

“Actually, I’m thinking I’m not going to be there because of political reasons,” Schave said. “If I went, it’d probably start out as a shouting match. I want them to be productive, and so it’s probably best.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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The fire is out, but Aberdeen Museum of History struggles to rebuild