At the 120th anniversary of statehood, museum director David Nicandri has put together an exhibit covering indelible moments, from Vancouver's exploration to Galloping Gertie to Wild Rainiers, and more.
It’s been 20 years since the Evergreen State celebrated its centennial, and Washington State History Museum Director David Nicandri was responsible for much of the festivities that took place back in 1989. Exactly 20 years later, on Wednesday, Nicandri kicks off a long farewell of sorts, by curating a new exhibit at the Tacoma museum called “Icons of Washington History.”
Though he has no imminent plans to hang up his vintage cleats, Nicandri says the show comes toward the end of his 37-year history career. “I’m down to my last inning or two,” he said.
As director of the Washington State History Museum since 1987 (and former chief curator of the Washington State Capital Museum before that), Nicandri knows his Washington history, and knows how to use the museum’s collection to tease out entertaining and informative stories. For “Icons of Washington History,” he’s picked out nearly 70 objects from Native American times to the recent past — items Nicandri describes as “high-quotient material culture.”
All the usual suspects are here — 1962 World’s Fair goodies, a giant Rainier Beer bottle costume worn in 1970s TV commercials — as well as some real surprises, including a four-foot chunk of concrete from the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge (the one dubbed “Galloping Gertie” that collapsed back in 1940). Divers working on the new Narrows Bridge a few years ago found the large section of roadway and curb and brought it to museum officials, who were thrilled to have a piece of something only visible in film footage of the infamous engineering failure.
Though “Icons of Washington History” is made up entirely of Nicandri’s favorites, he also admits to a short list of items that he truly loves. Among these are sketches made by Gustav Sohon in 1854-1855 during Isaac Stevens’ tour through Washington Territory, showing treaty scenes and Indian leaders, and the leather-bound “plate proofs” of “Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery.” This rare account of Captain George Vancouver’s exploration in the 1790s of what’s now Puget Sound is one of only five known to exist. The vintage volume boasts the first chart of Puget Sound, and the first engraved images of Mt. Rainier. Nicandri says the Washington State Historical Society (the museum’s parent organization) paid the princely sum of $5,000 for the volume back in 1905.
Amid the festivities that go along with the opening of the new exhibit, Nicandri says that like many cultural institutions the Washington State History Museum is feeling the effects of the recession. “We were ahead of [attendance and revenue] projections as late as March of this year, but the bottom dropped out in the spring,” Nicandri said. The museum, which is part of Washington state government, already faced one round of cuts earlier this year, losing eight positions. The current staffing level is 33 full-time employees, though “we’re taking it a quarter at a time,” Nicandri said.
As Nicandri suits up for he what he calls his final innings on the job, “Icons of Washington History” is the perfect way to spend a rainy, off-season afternoon.
"Icons of Washington History" runs Wednesday through July 3 at the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. For more information, call 1-888-BE THERE or see the museum's website.