Museum staff

Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum staff (from left) Ellen Wallace, Stacy Pierro, Stacey Hawkey, Betsy Millard and Donella Lucera stand amid the construction materials for the museum roof repair.

I think we’re all fed up with staying at home, covering our faces, staying at a distance from friends, and washing our hands for the 2,327th time. But we gotta do it! We can’t let this virus be smarter than humans. And, right now, because the White House hasn’t either devised or implemented a national testing and contact tracing strategy — which would be the modern approach to a pandemic — these are the only tools we’ve got.

There are ways around our constraints though — if we’re careful. Last week my eight-pod, called by some a “quaranteam,” had a barbecue at the Port of Peninsula. We all brought our own chairs and stuff to throw on the grill. One member brought a thermos of cosmopolitans — those kept us warm while a stiff breeze knocked over chairs and whipped the tablecloths around.

But windblown or not, we sat in a big circle laughing and joking and the sun was out, so we were grateful to be together. And our aerosols, droplets and fomites were blown into the trees or neutralized by UV rays.

Metal building, metal roof

During these long days — I think we can all agree time is bizarre now, we have all day to do things but somehow nothing gets done — I’ve been wondering how places that build their service model on being open to the public are coping. Then out of the blue I got an email from Betsy Millard, director of the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, just as I was thinking of calling her. I’d been worrying whether closing their doors was a financial burden that would be difficult to overcome, and whether they were all sitting on their hands.

Far from it! It turns out the museum staff are busier than ever. Like many facilities they’ve been taking this time to creatively rethink priorities and get projects done that are difficult to do when the doors are open.

First, Betsy and I talked about the museum roof:

“We’ve needed a roof for years and have been talking about it internally — like ‘How will we raise the money for this?’ Then, during the big windstorm this winter, a lot of water came in and we were running around with buckets catching leaks everywhere. Ron Robbins, watching all this at his American Legion meeting, said, ‘We’ve got to do something!’ And, with the help of [former Ilwaco mayor] Mike Cassenelli, they got [state Sen.] Dean Takko’s attention. Dean is a history buff and a great supporter of our community, and he helped us get a Department of Commerce Community Capital Facilities Grant.

“The museum is basically a big 1965 pole building — it’s one of the largest on the Peninsula — and the beams are metal, big steel beams. So, yeah, a metal roof on a metal building, it’s kind of new for me. Since this is a historic building, we actually had to have the Department of Archaeology and Historical Preservation (DAHP) sign off on our roof plans and that happened last week. We figured that purlins might also need to be replaced, so we’re looking at around $200,000 for the repair.

“The building is actually owned by the city of Ilwaco, but we have a long-term lease and are responsible for repairs. We’d been slowing raising money, putting it aside in a capital fund, but fortunately, with Ron, Mike, and Dean’s help, our state grant came through providing three-quarters of the funds — about $150,000 (minus the department’s percentage to administer the grant).

“We got bids and we’re working with Dr. Roof — I’m glad we could keep the repair local. They just started and estimate it will be a five-week project, so we’re hoping to open again sometime in August.”

Tidbits of history

Museum staff members have also been broadening their connection to the community by taking advantage of their enormous photo archive. Betsy continues, “Surprisingly, we’re getting monthly what our usual annual reach was in ordinary times — about 50,000 ‘likes,’ ‘shares’ or comments a month — with our photo-a-day program. We’ve been posting images from our archives on Facebook and Instagram every day Tuesday through Saturday.” (Facebook link here: https://www.facebook.com/columbiapacificheritagemuseum)

“We’ve found that photos are a perfect vehicle for telling the stories about our people, resources, and how things have changed. And this project is helping us with folks who are further afield. We’re learning so much more about our area. And I think it makes people more anxious to visit us when we do open our doors again. Really, these photos are like little tidbits of history. And for us it’s an opportunity to share photos that we can’t always display because of conservation issues.”

The staff is also scanning and archiving images from the collection in partnership with Washington State University in Vancouver.

Scoop: New museum director in the works

The closure of the museum has also given Betsy and the staff time to reflect about the museum mission and structure in a more profound way. Some big changes are afoot. Donella Lucera, a kingpin in the Community Historian Project — now in its eighth year — has made the decision to join her son in Colorado Springs, Colorado — “but I want to stay connected at a distance,” she says. “And I’ll be back and forth — my sister has a place here.”

And Betsy herself has been thinking about a change. “Let me give you something of a scoop,” she says. “We’ve been looking at our funding and how we can be a more professional and sustainable organization. Covid has changed my thinking about a lot of things. What we’re looking at is my continuing to curate the collections as a volunteer — it’s what I was trained to do. I’ve been working with our collections for over 12 years, so I know them well, and I definitely have the chops for that. But that frees up my salary and Donella’s to actually get a new director. I’m excited about this.

“I’ll still do exhibits and some of the other things I’m already doing, but this change would allow us to get some ‘young blood’ involved — find someone who could really think about the connection of the museum to our community. My focus on the collections would free this person up to initiate new programs and begin to ask questions like ‘What do we do for the public? How can we become more relevant to kids? How can we support families more?’

“We have a great team now — our other staff will stay in place so we’ll have continuity — and we have a great board and some younger board members who are on the search committee. We’ve put together a basic job description. So I’m not hiring this new person — they’re not going to be working for me, I’ll be working for them! We all feel this is a good time to make some changes; a lot of people are rethinking their lives, so there might be somebody out there who would love to be the public face of our museum.

“We’ve really taken advantage of this pandemic. I think people are more patient now in a weird way — we’re taking our time to do this repair and planning thoughtfully without a lot of pressure. It’s going to be interesting to see how everything comes together over the next year.”

I’d say that’s an understatement, but I applaud Betsy and her staff. From the ground floor to the roof, our museum is embracing change.

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