Home to 2.8 million artifacts, the museum collection at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site offers a glimpse into American history.
Since 1947, the National Park Service has conducted archaeology at Fort Vancouver. Through 76 years of onsite excavations and donations from the community, it has amassed an archival collection of historical and cultural significance.
Now, Fort Vancouver plans to promote archaeological education by re-establishing museum exhibits. Throughout August, it will host three “Cultural Resource Curiosity Labs,” where community members can view artifacts and learn about a collection spanning decades.
These labs will take place at the Fort Vancouver Fur Store from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and are free with admission.
A trip through history
The museum collection houses artifacts from a range of periods and cultures, including the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade, Indigenous cultures, the U.S. Army era, aviation at Pearson Field and the Kaiser Shipyard.
Fort Vancouver also stores collections from five additional national parks and historical sites.
As an advocate of archaeological education, National Park Service Curator Meagan Huff believes this collection helps us understand stories from the past.
“What we find in the archaeological record tells us the stories that the written record does not,” said Huff. “That is one of the things I like to help people unlock: why is the world the way it is today?”
Included in the collection are archival documents and photos, historical objects and archaeological artifacts.
British ceramics are among the most popular artifacts. Covered in blue and white Victorian flowers, Huff says the British pieces often emulated the pattern of Chinese ceramics.
During one above-ground excavation at Vancouver Barracks, archaeologists recovered a stash of photography supplies and photos of Buffalo Soldiers, the African American U.S. cavalry soldiers of the late 19th century.
“It is so rare to know what they looked like and what their names were,” said Huff. “That doesn’t often come up from underground excavations.”
The process continues
As an active site, archaeology at Fort Vancouver is a continual process. Archaeologists conduct research, analyze data and recover new artifacts annually.
Once archaeologists discover new pieces, volunteers clean and analyze them in a lab. Catalogs often help volunteers gauge which time period the artifact came from.
From there, the curation facility catalogs and stores the artifacts in a climate-controlled space for proper preservation.
Tessa Langford, cultural program resources manager, has worked at Fort Vancouver more than 20 years. In her experience, archaeology underscores the significance of personhood throughout history.
“The fascinating part to me is that each one of the items in this collection was the personal belonging of an individual — that has meaning,” she said. “It also tells you so much about what happened globally, such as immigration and trade routes.”
Archaeology teaches the stories of the past; it also teaches us about communities that were dispossessed. As a home and resting place for the ancestors of many Indigenous communities, Fort Vancouver is a complex colonial site with a deep history.
“If there is one resource for underrepresented stories, it is this museum collection,” Langford said. “It’s all here and I think the best part of our job is to bring that to the forefront — to the light.”
In the future, Fort Vancouver hopes to continue regular programming for collection exhibits.
“We are always thinking of ourselves as one person in a long chain of custodians helping preserve this collection of history,” said Huff.
The Cultural Resource Curiosity Labs will occur throughout August, but Huff says tours are available by appointment only. Those interested in viewing the collection can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Community members interested in volunteering at Fort Vancouver or getting involved with archaeology should contact Volunteer Program Coordinator Jennifer Ladd at email@example.com.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.