The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 6, Number 3, Pages 22-32
Summer, 1981

The Yakima Valley Museum

By Robert Mull

The Yakima Valley Museum, one of the finest local museums in the Northwest, is beginning its fourth decade with new property and exhibits. Robert Mull is a member of the museum staff.

It is unfortunate that lifetime members of a community will frequently be far behind transients and visitors in discovering their own heritage. Often it takes the arrival of an out-of-town friend or relative to initiate an excursion to a local attraction or some point of interest. How many times do Museum staff members hear such homilies as "I never knew you were here," or, "After 20 some years in the area, I thought it was time I came by to see what you're all about?" Such comments indicate how we take for granted things so close and fundamental to our lives.

Situated on a large city park, nestled in a beautiful residential area in the city of Yakima, is the Museum and headquarters of the Yakima Valley Historical Association. Clearly visible to passing traffic on a busy arterial, the Museum, nonetheless, remains an attraction many Yakima residents have yet to behold.

Main Entrance to the Yakima Valley Museum, 1981.

This is not to say that the Museum has been overlooked; more than 35,000 visitors toured the Museum in 1980, and undoubtedly, local residents figured heavily on that statistic. Indeed, one may walk into virtually any classroom in the Yakima area and discover that most of the students have toured the Museum in a school group.

The Yakima Valley Museum is one of the largest museums in the Pacific Northwest. This is especially impressive since the Museum was privately built and is privately funded, with support coming solely from local Valley donors. Incorporated in 1952 as an historical and cultural institution, the Museum was built through a community-wide fund-raising effort. In 1975, the Museum was expanded to nearly three times its size to accommodate newly acquired collections, particularly the Gannon Wagon Collection from Mabton, Washington. This vast collection of more than 60 horse-drawn vehicles is the most prominent of the exhibits, filling two floors of the Museum's gallery, in addition to various warehouses around the city. A vigorous fundraising effort accommodated the purchase of this collection, while the facilities to house it were funded by the patronage of local newspaper magnate, W.H. Robertson.

Od-time hearse from museum wagon collection.

The staff of four full-time and five part-time employees at the Museum are augmented by nearly 200 volunteers performing a variety of duties. In addition to an Education Committee, Exhibit Committee, and Quilter's Guild, volunteers provide regularly scheduled work duties, such as an active docent program, conducting tours through the Museum and answering the many questions of visitors. Most of these volunteers come from the more than 600 members of the Museum's Historical Association.

The Volunteer program is one of the many functions of the Museum's Education Director, Mrs. Carol Tate, who also works with the Education Committee. Through her guidance, the Museum has become closely woven to the various educational centers of the Yakima Valley. During the nine-month school term, any number of public school students can be found taking class tours through the Museum. In addition, the Museum holds winter and summer school classes in the building, which bring the students closer to Valley history.

The education director also works closely with area colleges. During fall and spring quarters, extension courses through Central Washington University are held in the Museum, dealing with Yakima Valley history. These have been particularly successful through the years, bringing in large numbers of college students, teachers, and other interested participants from the community. In these classes, students hear Valley history from local historians, providing a variety of viewpoints. Each class also takes a tour, visiting local points of interest. In addition to these regularly scheduled classes, the Museum and CWU offer individual project studies, which are practicums in each area of the Museum. In these, the students become involved in projects for their benefit as well as that of the Museum. Student teachers are also trained in the Museum on teaching methods which are subsequently used in their Field Studies to area schools.

The Gilbert-Donelson House, Circa 1924.

A variety of other programs are provided, many of which are in conjunction with the Museum's Guild. Lectures, community group programs, Sunday films, and seminars are given at intervals throughout the year. Also provided are workshops, such as furniture refinishing and appraising; artifact kits for use in schools; interpretive sheets for distribution to Museum visitors; and historical publications. Always of great community interest, educationally and historically, are the tours the Museum provides regularly to points in Washington, surrounding states, and Canada.

As an educational institution, the Museum maintains its relationship with scholars, researchers, and local historians on a consulting basis and as a resource center. For this reason, the Yakima Valley Museum is very fortunate to have had planners include facilities for archives in their long-range planning. So many small or medium-size museums do not include a room or rooms for such material. In Yakima, the Museum is the only institution actively seeking and procuring archival materials. This includes maps, photos, personal records, journals, and local newspapers from 1884 to 1956. The photo collection contains more than 10,000 items, and is growing every day. All these are under the guardianship of Archivist, Frances Hare.

The photo collection deals mainly with the local Yakima Indians, William O. Douglas, the economy of the Valley, and development of irrigation. The Museum is in the process of cataloging, an on-going task, and can now offer reproduction service to those who wish copies. Requests for photos to be used as illustrations in books arrive continuously from many parts of the nation.

The book collection, of course, is a very selective one, as it also deals with the local area and its history. The Museum uses the Dewey classification system and Sears subject headings which carry through the local clipping file and photo collection. These systems make it much easier to cull archival material, whether books, clippings, or photos.

William O. Douglas memorabilia.

The latest addition to the archives is the William O. Douglas collection. This consists of more than 1,700 books, a large collection of slides, 16mm movies, and hundreds of still photos. In addition to the archival materials, the Museum received the contents of Justice Douglas's office. The Museum is building a replica of his office in which the furniture and memorabilia will be put into place.

On June 12, 1981, the Washington Commission for the Humanities voted funding for the Museum's work on the Douglas collection. The William O. Douglas Public Project is a two part effort designed to give public exposure to the thoughts and career of the late Supreme Court Justice. It will provide various means of interpretation, such as labeling, a slide-tape presentation, and a handout brochure. The second part is a television documentary, produced by the Museum and Yakima's public station, KYVE. The documentary will focus on Douglas' relationship to Washington State, particularly the Yakima area, which he considered home. The Museum is working with a number of local organizations on the project, and has received substantial support from the community.

Just as the functions of a Museum cannot be judged by its name or facilities, neither can the total size of collections it possesses be determined by its exhibits. It is commonly held that one sees perhaps 10 percent of a museum's total collection on exhibit. This is generally due to such logistical reasons as lack of gallery space or proper exhibit facilities. Other reasons may be duplication of objects, objects beyond the scope of the museum, or artifacts being restored. Such factors come into play at the Yakima Valley Museum as well. Just as it is physically impossible to exhibit all the items from the Gannon Wagon Collection, it would be impossible to bring out the vast numbers of Plateau Indian baskets, pioneer tools, fashions, saddles, and other items currently in storage. Indeed, it would be difficult even to estimate the number of individual items in the possession of the Museum without poring over file after file of records.

This extensive collection gives the Museum considerable flexibility in choosing and designing exhibits. The Museum's Exhibit Committee, working under the expertise of Curator Ray Swenson and Artist Laura Wise, believes in a changing, nonstatic exhibit gallery. With a number of revolving exhibits supplementing the permanent ones, the Yakima Valley Museum is able to provide something new to returning patrons, and allow for various "theme" exhibits during the holidays and special occasions.

In the Museum's permanent exhibits, attention is mainly directed towards artifacts which played an integral role in the development of the Yakima Valley. Plans for the future include an extensive upgrading of these exhibits, particularly in the areas of hops growing, irrigation, and early trading. The Museum welcomes any cooperation or recommendations from outsiders with relevant knowledge or artifacts.

The summer of 1981 proved to be a most significant one for the Museum, as a major addition came into its possession. The historic Gilbert-Donelson House, built in 1898, was the first home of the prominent H.M. Gilbert family of Yakima. The home was recently repurchased by the Gilbert family and subsequently donated to the Museum as an annex. Tours and social functions will take place in the home, which is filled with antiques and art donated by its previous owner, Mrs. L.M. (Bill) Donelson. The two-story, four bedroom home was once a farmhouse on the outskirts of Yakima. As the city has grown, it now stands in what is considered the central part of the city, only a few blocks from the Museum. The gift of the Gilbert-Donelson house is typical of the kind of support and interest the Museum receives from the community.The Yakima Valley Museum

Museum operations are overseen by the Director, William O. Pugh, now serving his fifth year in that position. His duties include initiating or sharing initiation of all exhibits and programs, as well as being the watchdog over budget and personnel decisions. The Museum is governed by a Board of Trustees to which the Director is responsible. This involves attendance at meetings, representing the Museum in official relations to the community and helping form Museum policies. Mr. Pugh also takes an active part in the selection and acquisition of collections.

Almost every account of a point of interest, such as a museum, concludes with an invitation to visit, or participate in its programs. In keeping with this tradition, the Yakima Valley Museum extends its invitation to all visitors to the Yakima area.

The Yakima Valley Museum is located at 2105 Tieton, Yakima, Washington 98902.