Washington State History Museum

Turns out I’ve been incorrectly calling my trip to Washington state the Seattle adventure, as I realized I did venture outside of Seattle a few times during the trip. I convinced my Seattle buddy to take me on a day trip to Tacoma, and we saw the…

Washington State History Museum, located in Tacoma, Washington


The Washington State History museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm; every third Thursday of each month, the museum is open till 8pm with free admission from 2pm to 8pm. Admission to the museum is $12. The museum is easily  accessible by public transportation from Seattle; take the 594 express bus towards Lakewood Station, and get off at the Pacific Ave/UW stop, the museum is across the street. It takes about an hour and the fare is only $3.50 (check the transit website for current bus fare). If you don’t prefer public transportation, you can always drive to the museum; there is onsite parking, street parking and parking lots nearby, all with a nominal fee. Most state history museums are located in the state capital city (I haven’t been to them yet, but I’ve looked it up, and most are in the state capital), but the Washington State History museum is located in Tacoma, which is a bit odd. But there is another state history museum located in Olympia, Washington, so perhaps that is the official state museum or maybe there are two state history museums.

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The museum building consists of several floors, however, exhibits are located on the third and fifth floors only, all the other floors are off limits to the public. The third floor contains the largest permanent exhibit of the museum,  the “Great Hall of Washington History”. The exhibit is separated into several sections, all equally important in shaping Washington state. There is really no specific order to view the exhibit, but the sections are organized in such a way that one progresses from early history to modern issues. The first section, “Natural Settings”, describes the various regions that make up the state, and focuses on the natural resources that can be found there. The next section is “Native Heritage and Plank House”, which describes the cultures of the natives who inhabited the land prior to colonization. There are various artifacts on display, including a bit of information on the Clovis people, who are considered to be the earliest known inhabitants of North America. The following section entitled “Encounters” details the Native peoples’ experiences with explorers and traders from around the world. Included in this section are artifacts, photographs and dioramas showing the effects of the Natives encounters with the newcomers.

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Continuing on, visitors can see the development of Washington state once settlements have been established. “Frontier Towns and Railroads” describes how the railroad changed the Washington towns. In addition, two westward migrations, the Oregon Trail and the Klondike Gold Rush, brought thousands of settlers to the Northwest that changed the area physically and culturally. “Wageworker’s Frontier, Logging and Lumber” introduces the various industries, such as agriculture, lumber, and mining, that were significant to Washington’s economy (some continue to be important in the modern world). In addition, this section gives visitors a glimpse into the lives of the working class men and women in the 1880s to 1920s, the wages they earned, the long hours they had to work, and the working conditions they had to endure. At the “Hard Times and Homefront” section, visitors can learn what life was like during the Great Depression and World War II.  The last section was “Modern Washington”, which focuses on how present-day actions will affect Washington’s future.

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The fifth floor of the museum contains the featured exhibits. One of the featured exhibits when I visited back in March 2015 was “Pomp and Circumstance: The Clothing of Transformation”, which was on display from September 27, 2014 to June 21, 2015. The exhibit explores the significance of ceremonial clothing and accessories worn during important milestones in a person’s life. On display were a variety of clothing from different cultures throughout time, from the 1800s to present day.

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Another featured exhibit was “Living in Shadows: Volcanoes of Washington”, which was on display from January 31, 2015 to May 17, 2015. The exhibit examined the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen, and the four other active volcanoes in the Washington area. In addition, the exhibit contained information on the science behind volcanoes, and explained how to prepare homes and communities in case of future eruptions.

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The last featured exhibit was “Ernest Oglby Punkweiler and the Fabulous-Miraculous Time Intrusionator”, which was on display from May 17, 2014 to April 12, 2015. The exhibit is an interactive, kid-centered exhibit based on a children’s story with the same name. (It may have been a fun exhibit for children, but I was utterly confused going through the exhibit, as I never came across the story as a child. I couldn’t make sense of what was going on.)

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Also on the fifth floor of the museum are the History Lab Learning Center and the Model Railroad. The History Lab is suitable for visitors of all ages and contains a multitude of interactive displays to engage visitors while learning about Washington state’s history. Right by the History Lab, is the Model Railroad, which I must say is impressive.  In addition to marveling at the model railroad, visitors can  learn a bit about Washington’s railroad system in the 1950s.

Overall, my friend and I spent 2 hours going through the two floors of the museum, however one can spend much more time there if they want to look in greater detail. (I probably could’ve spent another hour or so there, but unfortunately my friend and I were on a time schedule, so we did the best we could.) Considering the amount of information present at the museum, the admission price is rather decent (if this museum happened to be located in a major city, the price of admission could easily be double the price.) The museum is a great place to bring the family for a day trip, as there is enough information for adults and older kids on the third floor, and the history lab will keep the kiddies occupied, and then there is the stunning model railroad (who doesn’t like model trains). Tacoma really isn’t that far from Seattle, so if you’re already in Seattle, take a day trip and learn about Washington state’s fascinating history at the Washington State History Museum.


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