Vashon Heritage Museum: Partner Profile

July 3, 2024 // Carson Meacham

National Heritage Areas are based on partnerships: bringing together a range of Tribes, organizations, businesses, and governments around heritage resources and stories. One of our partners is the Vashon Heritage Museum. If you are interested in becoming a partner, learn more on our become a partner page.

As the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association approaches its 50th anniversary, the museum the organization has created as a home for thousands of artifacts and stories is getting an extensive renovation, including a new permanent exhibit and expanded space for rotating displays.

Walking into the church-turned-museum, visitors are greeted by a large mural of an ancient mammoth over the entry. Interpretive signage informs visitors about the prehistoric occupants who inhabited the island more than a million years before today. A mammoth tooth on display—found on a local beach in 1960—helps visitors connect with the impressive creatures.

Past the mammoth, visitors walk through the space where pews once sat. Following the tall, vaulted ceilings of a church, the gathering space is now separated into bays on each side. Each area features a different aspect of Vashon-Maury Island’s history.

Museum Renovations

These are the new permanent exhibits about the island, and while the featured artifacts might change occasionally, the message of each section will remain the same for years to come. One section includes the history of the people who lived on Vashon before European settlement and continue to make their home in the region, the s ̌xwəbabs (Swiftwater People). In this part of the exhibit, visitors can learn about the Twulshootseed language with an interactive language display contributed by the Puyallup Tribal Museum.

Towards the center of the building, visitors step up to a pedestal to view a tall digital screen displaying a map of the island. The map allows visitors to scroll through time, changing from decade to decade to show the development of roads, the increasing reliance on cars, and the consolidation of resources. Over 50 years, the 17 post offices formerly on the island decreased to one, the 13 school districts decreased to one, and the 15 community stores decreased to one.

The map also invites visitors to dive into stories of individual places assembled over decades by the Heritage Association. Later, some of this information will also be published online. Through this digital portal to the past, visitors to the museum can learn about the people, places, and experiences of the island as they exist today and since time immemorial.

In the rear of the museum, visitors can experience rotating and temporary exhibits. For this election year, they will be sharing a timeline of politics on the island, including the rapid shifts from red to blue and back, as well as memorabilia from activism and political moments.

Island Refuge

Vashon Maury Island Heritage Association board president Bruce Haulman shared that part of what makes Vashon Island special is its isolation. In recent decades only two public ferries have provided access to the island. This has turned Vashon into both a refuge and a destination, leading to a unique gathering of people.

Bruce has lived on Vashon since 1973, though he only got involved with the museum in the early 2000s after the Heritage Society purchased their current building. “From day one, they had the intent of getting a museum,” said Bruce. In that spirit, the early heritage activists tucked artifacts away in barns and garages to keep them from being lost. Since obtaining the old Lutheran church building—originally built in 1907 by Norwegian immigrants—Vashon Heritage Museum has been working towards better ways to present their exhibits and displays.

In 2016, the museum won an award from the American Association of State and Local History for their exhibit called “In and Out,” which detailed some of the experiences of LGBTQI+ people on Vashon who moved to the island in the 1980s and 1990s. “[What] I’m trying to do, and [what] I think we as an organization are trying to do, is get the museum recognized as a safe place to tell your story,” Bruce shared. “It’s about getting out of that sense that there’s just one story and one way to tell a story of an island,” said Bruce.

New and Old Stories

Gretta Stimson is the new executive director of the Vashon Heritage Museum and is excited to take on the challenge of opening a newly renovated space. For Gretta, one of the most fascinating parts of running a museum is exploring how material culture can provide a direct link to the past for visitors. “We may have an idea of ourselves, but what we leave behind may tell a slightly different story. Sometimes physical objects really have their own stories to tell,” said Gretta.

The artifacts scattered across Vashon help the museum tell the story of the island. “Hidden under people’s beds and in their barns are incredible artifacts,” Gretta says. “We just need to let them know we want them.”

The Vashon Heritage Museum reopens on July 5 with an extensive new set of exhibits in a freshly renovated historic space. Visit the museum to learn more about the unique history of this incredible island from the people who have spent decades working to preserve its stories.

The museum will be open to visitors from 1:00 – 4:00 pm, Wednesday through Sunday.

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