Aberdeen museum board, mayor clash over museum plans

The Aberdeen museum board and Mayor Pete Schave are not seeing eye-to-eye when it comes to the future of the Aberdeen Museum of History, displaced more than three years ago by the armory building fire.

Recent museum board meetings have been tense. At the July 6 meeting, “The mayor informed the board that the museum is not a priority for him,” said City Council board liaison Tawni Andrews.

The minutes of that meeting, and comments from board members after, indicate Schave said the board, formed shortly after the armory fire, had not met any of the goals set before them.

“The museum board has not accomplished any of the basics they set out in their goals,” Schave told The Daily World this week.

He said the collection, stored in a warehouse off Port Industrial Road at city expense, still has not been properly cataloged.

“It’s just strange to me the way they have never accomplished anything and all of a sudden they say they want to find a building” and have the city pay for it, said Schave.

Museum Board Chairman John Shaw said at the Aug. 3 board meeting that he had met with Schave to talk things through after the July 6 meeting.

“I personally have been advocating that we have a good reset with the mayor on direction and goals,” Shaw said. “And then we have a good reset with the City Council with a workshop.”

Andrews said she was working on scheduling a City Council/museum workshop.

The museum board was the idea of then-Mayor Erik Larson. By city ordinance, the duties of the board are, in a nutshell, to develop plans and programs for the preservation and recognition of the city’s history, “including the maintenance and display of city property transferred to the care and custody of the board.”

Larson “was in favor of creating a city museum department, and he wanted to have paid city staff running the museum when there’s no revenue source to sustain that,” said Schave. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea or a good idea, there’s just no revenue source to sustain that.”

“I’ve been reminded that for the greatest period of time we’ve been carrying water that was laid down by former Mayor Erik Larson,” said Shaw at the Aug. 3 board meeting, adding, “at this point a reassessment is not unfair for the mayor to ask. I think we all need to settle down and have a good in-depth discussion on this.”

Schave’s vision of a museum is one that is run by volunteers, as the Aberdeen Museum of History was run by the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum in a building that was gifted to the city and had an income source leasing out office space to the Coastal Community Action Program.

“We are resetting back to what was approved at the outset by the Council after the fire, to work toward an operating accredited museum of high standards as outlined under the American Alliance of Museums,” said Shaw after the Tuesday meeting.

“The past operation of the museum was operated by the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum with a lot of love, but not the level of technical competency that allowed the Aberdeen Museum to pass an assessment protocol that would achieve accreditation.”

Shaw said the board will continue to do what the ordinance says they are empowered and tasked to do.

“While the city may not be ready to move on a museum yet, the board plans to continue efforts to establish best practices, planning, execution and oversight on handling the collection in its post-fire condition utilizing the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum and volunteers,” said Shaw.

There was still some tension during the Aug. 3 board meeting.

“I’ve always imagined that when it came time to acquire the new museum building that the city would help support that effort,” said board member Randy Beerbower. “I have concerns that that may not be the case of the mayor, who stated at our last meeting that the museum was not a priority to him.”

Beerbower said that none of the $22 million armory fire insurance settlement had been set aside for a new museum location and the board should come up with “realistic replacement costs on the square footage that we had before the fire, and we need to lobby the City Council to earmark that amount and transfer it into the museum fund for future use to secure the new museum building.”

Board member Don Lentz agreed with Beerbower and said the board has come up with several suggestions for potential new locations, mentioning specifically the Historical Seaport, which is already under city ownership. It’s his feeling that the insurance settlement for the armory fire should be used to replace the former museum.

“That’s why we got that money, in my opinion,” said Lentz.

Later, Schave said the insurance settlement is “not museum money. The museum got the money out of the insurance funds put into the museum account ($1 million in the settlement specifically for the collection) and what’s left is city money, and the council has already committed $7 million of that to the Gateway Center.”

There are other projects like the police and fire stations and the North Shore Levee that are higher on Schave’s list than a museum, “and the levee project is very critical to the whole community.”

Andrews again voiced her frustration with Schave at the Aug. 3 board meeting, and indicated she’s not alone.

“Just so the board knows, as a City Council member, myself and several City Council members are just as frustrated as you are,” she told the board.

The reality, Andrews said, is there’s only so much they can do for the museum “even as a City Council,” referencing a paid museum registrar position to handle the collection, approved unanimously by the City Council.

“It is ultimately the mayor’s decision. And it’s just like the position the City Council voted to put in place at the end of last year, and then the mayor chose not to (fill it). So you’re going to have to get buy-in from the mayor on almost anything we put forward to begin with,” said Andrews.

Lentz agreed a workshop with the City Council would be productive, but added, “My biggest fear is he (the mayor) is going to spend all the money and we’re not going to have anything (for a museum). I just want to make sure we end up with a museum.”

Later, Schave said “It’s real easy for me to see some things in City Hall that were more important to deal with than a museum department. In code enforcement, we’ve been trying to hire somebody in that department for three years and it’s behind and struggling, the paperwork is a foot deep every morning and there is nobody to help. Finance has had its struggles, human resources, and now I’m looking to hire a new city attorney. Those are important things we have to have, and a museum department with paid city staff is not up there on that level.”

As for sentiment toward a permanent museum location, “This community loves its museum, I understand that. But first thing’s first.”

Schave spoke briefly toward the end of the Aug. 3 meeting, saying he had been reaching out to the Friends of the Aberdeen Museum about a contract to work with the city and the board to work together on museum plans, and will likely be able to meet with them in the coming weeks.

Earlier, Ruth Hamilton, Friends of the Aberdeen Museum Secretary, said she’d like to see her group meet with the board “to discuss plans for the Aberdeen Museum of History, and ways we can work together to achieve mutual goals.”