How will the Northwest be remembered?

Jennifer Kilmer, the new Director of the Washington State Historical Society, is on a mission to keep Northwest heritage from becoming a thing of the past.
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Director of the Washington State Historical Society, Jennifer Kilmer

Jennifer Kilmer, the new Director of the Washington State Historical Society, is on a mission to keep Northwest heritage from becoming a thing of the past.

It's easy to be gloomy about the state of Northwest heritage, what with so many endangered properties, Heritage Turkeys, and budget cuts. But there are good things happening too.

On the museum front, for example, the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle will soon be ensconced in its new home on the shore of South Lake Union. The new exhibit space will give new visibility to MOHAI and help anchor a nexus of heritage in one of Seattle's newest, and booming neighborhoods, a place where history too often has been torn down. The public grand opening will be Saturday, Dec. 29th.

And the museum scene in Tacoma is hopping. Talking over coffee at the Madison Park Starbucks recently, Jennifer Kilmer, the new head of the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS), pointed out that the society's home of Tacoma will shortly have six major museums within walking distance from downtown.

Six? There's the Washington State History Museum, of course, and the Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Children's Museum, and the just-opened LeMay auto museum. "America's Car Museum" they call it. And by spring, 2013, the new exhibit hall at the Foss Waterway Seaport will be ready. The old Kalakala might be endangered, but big money has been put into maritime heritage on Tacoma's waterfront. The city of many a promised renaissance also has an enviable stock of historic buildings, and this museum district is a place you can visit by train, streetcar, or on foot.

Kilmer refuses to be brought down by this Mossback's worries about the future of state heritage funding, which has been slashed in recent years (what hasn't?). She describes herself as being filled with a "determined optimism," which is a good thing for the head of the state's historical society, which oversees much more than the state museum.

It also coordinates Washington's Heritage Capital Projects grants program (fixing up historic structures around the state), publishes the best popular history magazine in the state (the 25-year-old quarterly Columbia), supports local historical societies, creates exhibits and teaching materials that bring history into schoolrooms all around the state, and has played a key role in developing a new Lewis & Clark and Chinook Indian historic site. Middle Village-Station Camp is about to be turned over to the National Park Service. Times might be tough in heritage, but no one is standing still, least of all Kilmer.

Kilmer took over the WSHS in October of last year, when longtime director Dave Nicandri — a respected historian and savvy manager of the state's premier heritage institution — retired. Kilmer isn't a historian but rather a non-profit manager and fundraiser with an academic background in political science and philosophy (undergrad at Wellesley, Masters at Oxford). She worked for Paul Allen's various charitable foundations, then took over and grew the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, leading a capital campaign to build a few facility that raised over $12 million. If she can do that for Gig Harbor, what can she do statewide?

The WSHS has been recieving 67 percent of its funding from the state, Kilmer says, and is going to have to get better at raising money on its own — from programs, members, grants, and private donors. The budget tricks used to keep the state's historical societies, museums, and heritage projects going this last budget cycle are not necessarily tricks that can be used in the future, and everyone is looking at having to be more self-reliant. Not all of those organizations will find their way back into the state's general fund. That means new pressures to keep costs down, engage the public, raise private funds, and sell the mission to the people, and Olympia.

"I don't feel grim at all," Kilmer says, when asked the prospects. She sees the last-minute funding of heritage by the legislature as a victory that can be built upon. Some of the state Heritage Capital Grants, for example, which Gregoire targeted for elimination, were partially restored through a "jobs bill." There are creative ways to keep things going. (Kilmer's husband, by the way, is State Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor), who is vice chair of Ways & Means and oversees the state's capital budget.) 

Still, she thinks one of the strengths of heritage is that it crosses party lines. "Heritage is not political," she says. "It's not owned by one group or another." Not partisan, perhaps, but she'll find out it can be highly political.

Kilmer's museum made news recently when plans to host a D.B. Cooper exhibit in the summer of 2013 went viral in July. The Museum is also planning an exhibit called "Let's Ride: Motorcycling the Northwest" slated for January 2013. It will celebrate 100 years of motorcycling in the Northwest. That ought to be fun and reach out to many people, from motorcycle clubs to kids.

One hope is that shows like "Let's Ride" can help raise funds for a program to pay for buses to transport students on field trips to the museum. Tight budgets have made it hard for some schools to pay for school bus rentals for educational outings. Getting kids more engaged is key to the future of heritage. Kilmer marvels at how many kids love the Tacoma museum, and talks about a program at the Gig Harbor museum where kids spend time on a restored one-room schoolhouse from the 1890s learning the old-fashioned way.

Kilmer says she's also out to boost fundraising by "finding investors." She says the WSHS's performance is pretty transparent: attendance, engagement, participation, donations, grants, etc. are all measurable. Her challenge will be to keep Tacomans excited about "their" museum, while reminding everyone else that it's a statewide resource. On one level, it's an exercise in branding. On another, it's a worthy challenge, one where both the past and the future are at stake. How we value heritage is literally how we will be remembered.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.