The Clark County Historical Museum has so many items in its collection that it has trouble counting them all. Inventories over the years have come up with different numbers. The tally probably lands between 70,000 and 90,000 items, said Bradley Richardson, the museum’s executive director.
And yet the museum continues to accept more artifacts, though it must be discerning about what it takes.
I recently learned about this process, known as accessioning, when I donated a piece of furniture that belonged to my grandmother.
When I was a girl, the unusual table with elaborate wrought iron legs and an odd folding seat sat in a place of pride in my grandmother’s home, right next to her rocking chair. I never knew what it was until it was passed to me in 1998: an antique school desk, just like the one my grandma sat on as a country schoolgirl in the early 1900s.
The desk had originally supported children at the Columbian School, built in 1893 on Kauffman Avenue in Vancouver and used as an elementary school until 1941. The building became administrative offices for Vancouver schools, where my grandmother worked as the payroll clerk until her retirement in 1963.
She acquired the desk in 1959, when the old building was razed and the district offices moved to a new location. The desk found a spot in Grandma’s tidy home in the Vancouver Heights neighborhood, a well-polished witness to Wolverton family goings-on and, later, my own family’s daily life.
A few months ago, I realized that although I loved the old desk, I didn’t need it anymore. I couldn’t bear to think of another owner failing to appreciate its beauty, so I called the Clark County Historical Museum.
The intake process sparked my professional curiosity, so I sat down with Richardson.
“An object can have generations of history,” Richardson said. “There’s the original use of that object, when it was first made. And then as it continues to travel through time, especially when it’s here in the county and doesn’t go anywhere else, it creates new generations.”
Richardson likened an object’s history to water being poured into a pitcher, a little more water with each successive use or owner. When the museum accepts an item into its collection, that’s when a lid is put on the pitcher, so to speak.
Museum staff research and document everything about the object, seeking to understand not only its origins but also each chapter in its story to the present time.
“Collections is the chunk of the museum that keeps things catalogued, keeps things nice, brings in new things and makes sure that this bond between object and the story … stays solid,” Richardson said.
Some objects come with associated smaller objects, like a trunk containing linens or a box with photographs, and every single item must be documented and catalogued so its “story bond” remains intact, he said.
Volunteers from the Clark County Historical Society, the nonprofit entity that operates the museum, have been collecting items since the 1940s, even before there was a museum. Richardson said many of those pieces are considered “no-context items” because their connection to Clark County is unclear — for example, the museum’s unusual chair with cow-horn legs.
The lower level of the museum’s building at 1511 Main St. stores smaller items. Clark County provides an off-site space in a secret location where the museum stores larger pieces.
“It’s very secure, but we don’t want to broadcast where it’s at,” Richardson said.
I imagined the vast warehouse in the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” with innumerable rows of wooden crates stretching into the dimly lit distance.
“I wish!” Richardson quipped. “Actually, I’ll tell you, that is our goal. We want to eventually do a campaign to build a real, custom-made collections facility.”
Although the museum received a grant to upgrade the heating-and-cooling system in the secret off-site location, greater climate control and specialized storage equipment would be ideal, he said.
With so many objects to choose from, deciding which items to display can be a long, complicated process, Richardson said.
When planning an exhibit, staff first look through the museum’s collection and list relevant items. Objects may then be eliminated (or workarounds devised) based on exhibit space.
Next, the museum taps community members who offer objects or insight to complete the exhibit and its explanatory panels. The public’s help is indispensable, Richardson said.
Is there anything the museum won’t take?
“We make a joke about National Geographics and old newspapers,” Richardson said. “We always appreciate the sentiment behind that, but we also tell people that we’re very space constricted, so we have to be choosy about what we can take. I won’t take something if we can’t care for it.”
In fact, he said, the museum already has an extensive collection of old Columbian newspapers, both in print and on microfilm, stored at The Columbian’s offices on Eighth Street.
The museum also won’t take ordnance, anything that could explode, or anything that could be chemically or biologically hazardous. Richardson said that in the decade he’s been with the museum, he’s never been offered anything dangerous.
“If someone’s like, ‘Hey, I have an old grenade,’ we’re not going to take that in, or an old vial of smallpox vaccine,” Richardson said. “If someone says, ‘I’ve got this bottle of elixir from 1901 and it’s still full,’ we’d be like, ‘Hmmmm, let us do some research and maybe you shouldn’t touch it.’”
If you have an item that might help tell Clark County’s story, call the museum at 360-993-5679 or email email@example.com, along with photographs of the object and everything you know about it.
Then be patient, Richardson said, because it could take several weeks to decide where an object might go or whether museum staff can properly care for it — or if it would be better suited for another museum.
No matter where an object might end up, Richardson and museum staff treat each thing and the story it represents with utmost reverence.
“Museums have started to see themselves as centers for community memory, capturing all the stories of a community, both the broad strokes and the individual, personal stories,” he said. “Then we find ways to tell universal stories — stories about love, stories about loss, stories about the economy and stories about equality, things that everybody recognizes in their own lives.”
Objects not only provide a physical link to the past but also enrich our personal stories. It was only after I called the museum that I learned the full story behind my grandmother’s desk, and in doing so, I learned more about my grandmother.
“We can’t be these passive places where you come and stare at things through plexiglass and say, ‘I have no connection to this,’” Richardson said. “You should walk into a museum and say, ‘I see the reflection of myself and my community and my friends and my brothers and my sisters.’”