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How not to crater Washington's collective memory

Our state archives are in danger and money is scarce, but history still matters.
Ralph Hopkin’s Woods Electric today, as it is in storage at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

Ralph Hopkin’s Woods Electric today, as it is in storage at the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. Credit: PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

The Washington State Archives, according to a recent Herald of Everett article, will soon run out of space. This seems like a problem that should have been foreseen — and in fact it was.

For the better part of a decade, plans were underway to build a new state Heritage Center on the Capitol campus in Olympia to expand archive space and create a new home for the state library. Secretary of State Sam Reed even pushed the project, finding a dedicated funding source to help pay for it. Money was collecting in a dedicated account for that purpose.

Then the Great Recession hit, the state hit lean budget years, and the fund was raided to pay for other things.

Now the Heritage Center — which was not uncontroversial — is kaput. The problem of what to do with the growing number of state records, though, remains. Current Secretary of State Kim Wyman has asked for funds to lease warehouse space to help, but a permanent solution will have to be found.

What does our state history contribute to modern day Seattle? This winter, Seattle became obsessed with the discovery of an 8-foot mammoth tusk in a South Lake Union construction site. The Burke Museum, the state-funded natural history museum at the University of Washington, stepped in to dig up the rare find and engage the public in learning more about the tusk itself and the world it came from millennia ago. They plan to display it at the Burke's annual “Dino Day” on March 8.

That's just one highly publicized example of the value of the state's investment in scholarship and education. There are countless others.

Personally, I use many of these resources regularly. When I wrote Crosscut's Roots of Tomorrow series on examples of early Seattle urbanism, I tracked down the state's very first automobile — a Woods Electric from 1900 — at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. A staffer there took pictures of it so that Crosscut could share it with readers. Most autos end up in the junkyard, but we still have out first set of wheels!

Earlier this year, I worked with a state librarian in an attempt to find an original copy of the 1866 Memorial, an official request passed by the territorial legislature that asked President Andrew Johnson to secure fishing rights for U.S. fishermen in Russia's Alaskan waters. The 1866 Memorial was the impetus for the Alaska Purchase, supplying Congress with an economic justification for spending the money. The purchase was an event that reshaped America and secured the prosperity of Washington and Seattle.

Though she couldn't immediately find the original document, the librarian in Olympia went to work. Eventually, with the help of a seasoned UW librarian, she wound up in the University of Washington's Special Collections library with a long-forgotten file that contained a hand-written copy of the memorial. A founding document of our history was located and I, as a result, was able to share that document with Crosscut readers.

I have also been working with the Secretary of State's office and consulting with archives staff on updating the Washington Centennial Time Capsule in 2014 — a volunteer project that started back in 1989 and will continue until the state's 500th anniversary in 2389. The capsule is stewarded by a group of volunteer "Keepers," recruited at age 10 to update the capsule every 25 years and recruit a new generation of kids. It's designed to be a demonstration — an experiment — in long term stewardship (you can read about it here).

The capsule is on public display in the rotunda of the Capitol building and will be a centerpiece of the state’s 125th Anniversary festivities in November. I hope the symbolism of its permanency is not lost on the lawmakers who pass it every day.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Disgraceful. A society that chooses to reduce its memory of the past, including mistakes, is bound to repeat them.

louploup

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

"Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum." Marcus Tullius Cicero's (106-43 BCE) Orator (46 BCE), chapter XXXIV [section 120]. The translation is as follows: "To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."

I find it truly distressing that the legislature would rob a dedicated fund in fiscal hard times. Shame! Shame! It would not surprise me to learn that some legislator responds to Knute Berger's article saying "not me, an earlier legislature cleaned out the dedicated fund." The response to such political buck passing, should be what have you done to replace these funds?

bartlet

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 8:52 p.m. Inappropriate

What is the point of 'dedicated funds' that can be tapped and cleared out?

We need more dedication from our elected ischemers.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Washington State history is too d@mn important to let its documents and historical objects rot. Bureaucrats, are you reading: fund new, waterproof, fireproof, suitable facilities for the state archives. AND--PAY the state archivists/historians what they're worth. our state's history is priceless, and we let it rot at our current and future peril. (NOTE: I'm the daughter of an archivist!)

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm distressed that this gifted author seems to be employing the oxymoronic phrase "Great Recession" with a straight face, as so many witless scribblers have done the past few years. Et tu, Knute?


It would certainly help to make more of our history accessible. I was so disappointed by the new State Historical Society Museum that I've never been back since it opened. It looked more like a prologue - here's some interpretive displays to get you in the mood for the real thing. But there's no real thing - just a gift shop. The old museum, down by Stadium High School, was a hodgepodge of displays crammed into wherever they would fit (Ezra Meeker's stuffed oxen, Tacoma's first electric generator, the ghost of Mary Lincoln) but you were seeing real history not plaster Lewis and Clark mannequins.


I often wonder what our wise solons in Olympia are spending our hard-earned money on, what is of such paramount importance that our schools go underfunded, our roads and highways crumble, and our history is stuffed into warehouses. What is so much more important? It's a scandal. As George Santayana so wisely said, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to look at plaster mannequins."

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 8:54 p.m. Inappropriate

@dbreneman, this was so good I wanted it repeated:

I often wonder what our wise solons in Olympia are spending our hard-earned money on, what is of such paramount importance that our schools go underfunded, our roads and highways crumble, and our history is stuffed into warehouses. What is so much more important? It's a scandal. As George Santayana so wisely said, "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to look at plaster mannequins."

We're crumbling, and the moment they homogenize the waterfront into tourist Disneyland, we're off the deep end.

Posted Fri, Mar 14, 4:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Someone should establish endowments like the one for MOHAI to keep a safety net under these historical assets. Maybe a one percent for historical preservation should be added to new construction for projects similar to the one dedicated for the arts. There should be a surcharge for replacing classic old buildings and houses with contemporary crap anyway.

jmrolls

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