Aberdeen mayoral candidates consider museum’s future

Since a massive fire burned down the Aberdeen Museum of History along with the Armory Building in June 2018, there has been much discussion about where a new museum should go. The city-designated board, called the Aberdeen Board of Museum and History, has proposed what’s known as the old Boeing Building near downtown (because Boeing parts were once produced there) as a potential place to store artifacts and possibly operate a museum.

It’s located underneath the overpass to South Aberdeen. Right now the busiest day of the week in that area is for the needle exchange program, but museum board members think a new museum could spark larger renovations to that area, which isn’t far from the waterfront. First, however, the city has approved for an analysis of the building to see how structurally sound it is and whether it’s viable for a museum.

For years the museum board designated by the city was unstaffed and inactive, and the independent volunteer group Friends of the Museum was the primary group overseeing things. After the fire, Mayor Erik Larson decided to restaff the citizen board, allowing for the city to take a more active role in the museum’s future.

Ultimately it will be up to the city’s museum board to submit a recommendation for a new museum location to the Aberdeen City Council for approval. But Larson said there would be opportunities for the public to weigh in and help decide where it should go.

The four candidates competing for Aberdeen mayor in this year’s election were asked by The Daily World what their priorities would be with planning and creating a new museum.

Janae Chhith

For Janae Chhith, one of the four mayoral candidates, said she would prefer the city to at least consider renovating the Armory Building to house a museum again along with other former tenants like the Aberdeen Senior Center and the Grays Harbor Genealogical Society.

After the city eventually collects insurance money for damage to the Armory Building and the museum collection, Chhith said it’s important to her that the city give some funding to the building’s other tenants. She said it’s her understanding other smaller groups that were in the building, such as the Genealogical Society, currently aren’t slated to receive payouts for damage claims.

“I think if the city is getting 10 million-plus dollars in insurance, there shouldn’t be any reason we couldn’t throw them a few thousand dollars even to help them out,” said Chhith, who said she’s also interested in considering the Boeing Building for a new location.

Now over a year since the Armory was destroyed, Chhith said the city should have taken faster action to plan for the museum’s future and a new location.

“I think if more focus was on the museum rather than the Gateway Center, there could’ve been something done by now,” she said.

Chhith was also in favor of having multiple locations for exhibits around town to attract visitors and encourage them to explore different buildings.

Larson said in an interview that part of the reason the process is taking this long is because the city needs to hear how much the insurance payout is before concrete action can be taken.

Erik Larson

For Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, the most important first step is to find a permanent storage space for the museum’s thousands of artifacts so they aren’t spread across the state in different facilities. Right now, many of the artifacts are still housed in the state archives building in Tumwater and elsewhere, and the city is leasing a separate space in town to hold some. Larson said the Boeing building could be the solution for where all the items go along with the potential of it being an exhibit space.

“The key is right now there’s really no location for the collection, so that’s our first priority is to find a storage site,” said Larson. “That’s driving a lot of the exploratory action to the Boeing building.”

Part of his and the city’s plan for the Gateway Center, Larson said, would be to house some exhibits that highlight the area’s commercial history with logging and other industries. He added that he likes the museum board’s idea of shaping up the area around the Boeing Building for a potential new museum spot.

He was also in favor of the board’s idea to create multiple exhibit spaces around town.

“We have a varied and rich history which is diverse enough to allow for multiple points of engagement,” said Larson. “I think a single monolithic structure might not have the same engagement and reach, and am interested in opportunities to partner with other spaces like the Historical Seaport and Morck Hotel.”

Tawni Andrews

Tawni Andrews, the city council president who’s running for mayor as well, said it’s important the new museum be elsewhere than the Armory Building due to how structurally unsound it is. She said she understands that insurance companies facing such a major claim can be slow. But she does wish a new location had already been chosen at this point.

With the Boeing Building under consideration for the new museum, Andrews said she likes the idea of renovating the area of town to attract more people, but she questioned if it’s visible enough.

“I do wonder if it will give us the visibility that the museum deserves or the foot traffic,” said Andrews.

Pete Schave

Council member Pete Schave, also running for mayor, said he’s supportive of whatever the museum board decides, and that he likes the idea to renovate the area under the Chehalis River overpass.

“Making the building a museum wouldn’t be the only thing that would happen there, the whole area would get cleaned and fixed up to look better,” said Schave. “I’m not an expert, but we have experts who know what to do to make it nice, maybe have a little park.”

While the board is in favor of potentially having several exhibit locations, Shave said his idea would be to have one dedicated museum location, but he’s open to the idea of spreading it around.

“Traditionally if you have a museum you have a museum,” said Schave. “But they’re the museum board, and working directly on this issue. I’d be behind them if they want to spread it around, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea.”