Fort Vancouver site veteran will manage Pearson Air Museum

Archaeologist says focus is 'place-based aviation history'

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Archaeologist Bob Cromwell has a new role at Fort Vancouver National Historical Site, as manager of Pearson Air Museum.

Cromwell said the position at Pearson combines two of his favorite topics: aviation and history.

"I started in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University," Cromwell said. He said he was looking forward to a career in the aviation industry and worked his way through college with a summer job at an airport in his hometown of Albany, Ore.

Eventually, "I determined that I didn't enjoy doing math all day and quickly transferred to history," he said.

Cromwell has been at the National Park Service site for 14 years; he started his new assignment last week.

The appointment marks another step in the museum's transition. Fort Vancouver National Historic site took over management of Pearson Air Museum in February 2013. The nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Trust had operated the museum in partnership with the Park Service and the city of Vancouver, but the relationship unraveled following disagreements about what activities were suitable for the site.

While concepts have been floated in the community for resurrecting a joint operation, the Park Service has been moving forward on its own. Cromwell is the first permanent administrator assigned to the museum during almost 1½ years of Park Service management. He has an initial two-year appointment.

Open-door policy

As far as restoring some of those relationships goes, "We have an open-door policy," Cromwell said. "This is a public facility. Anybody who worked here, volunteered here, enjoyed events in the past, come by."

Cromwell said he envisions Pearson Air Museum as a place for "interpreting place-based aviation history," which is to say a focus on events that occurred at Pearson Field, as well as events that took place on the site before there even was a Pearson Field.

It's part of the National Park Service approach to interpreting the past, Cromwell said.

"We do place-based history," he said. "If you go to Gettysburg, it's because that's where the battle happened."

At the national historic site, "we do history that occurred at Fort Vancouver and in relationship to Fort Vancouver," he said. At Pearson, "We want people to learn about aviation events that happened here."

That includes a new exhibit related to the World War I-era spruce mill, which was assembled for an archaeology presentation this week.

"Bob has an established rapport with staff at other air museums, and a network of peers throughout the national park system who work at aviation sites," Fort Vancouver Superintendent Tracy Fortmann said in a news release.

The site will be looking to partner with museums to acquire artifacts on loan that reflect Pearson's aviation history, Cromwell said.