Volunteers breathe new life into Kennewick historical museum
A quarter-scale model of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
A local radio station’s vinyl record collection.
Homesteading farming tools.
The bell from the old Finley school south of town.
Old yearbooks and framed Kennewick High class photos formerly on display at O’Henry’s Go Go restaurant.
An extensive arrowhead collection.
An elaborate wreath woven from the hair of multiple people.
They’re among the 10,000 items on display at the East Benton County Historical Museum, located just east of Keewaydin Park.
The museum re-opened March 4 after being closed for a month to redesign several of the exhibits in the 5,000-square-foot gallery. Built in 1982, the museum is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year.
“Our collection is immense. We have so many items that rather than overwhelm you, we wanted to edit the items on display,” said Stephanie Button, the museum’s administrative director.
East Benton County Historical Society members and volunteers have been working hard on the redesign, putting in more than 700 hours since the beginning of the year, Button said.
“It’s going to feel less overwhelming. I like things that we can do differently to give the museum a new, fresh perspective and maybe add to the enthusiasm of new people coming to the museum,” said Gale Metcalf, secretary of the society’s board of directors.
The museum will be divided into zones to tell new rotating stories and showcase the Tri-Cities’ diverse and rich history, Button said.
One of the zones will feature open space for community lectures and activities. Another will focus on the region’s earliest newspapers.
Visitors can choose a vinyl record from the large collection donated by KONA radio, place it on a working turntable and listen to it in the radio lounge area.
“The Tri-Cities has a pretty awesome history of music,” Button said.
A community gallery is the museum’s first step toward inviting guest curators inside.
Button said it’s critical to make sure the community “hears their own voices in the museum.” The gallery will be used to host shows, from solo exhibitions by local artists to specially curated shows by guest historians and to featured exhibits produced by teachers.
She’d also like to invite the refugee community to display artwork.
“It’s great to explore different cultures that come to the Tri-Cities,” she said, adding that she’d love to have a Latino companion exhibit when the Port of Kennewick’s wine village opens later this year on Columbia Drive. The wine village will feature a mural to celebrate the Latino community’s contributions to the Tri-City region, including the wine and agricultural industries.
Community exhibits will be rotated every two months.
“This is our way of saying, ‘Your stories are meaningful’ to the community,” Button said, explaining that museums become more relevant “when you abandon the idea that history happened a long time ago.”
Tri-City artist Ray Lechelt will debut a mixed media collection exploring memory and nostalgia in the space this month.
Other zones include the “nostalgia rooms,” a living room, dentist office and “curious classroom.” A veterans’ section pays tribute to those who served in the military in Benton County.
“We have a fantastic military collection and we definitely want to display and honor them,” Button said.
Button, who has a degree in anthropology, is a self-described “museum nerd.” She worked at the Reach museum in Richland for six years, focusing on building the education department and spearheading the shrub steppe ecology display. She was laid off when the Reach museum faced financial difficulties, and joined the Kennewick museum in June.
She’s hoping to create a sense of “place-esteem” at the museum. “We’re adapting to become more accessible to a newer audience and creating more hands-on opportunities,” she said.
Allan Simmelink, the society’s board president, appreciates her enthusiasm.
“Stephanie has us fired up to get more volunteers. I think she’s going to be a real boost to the museum,” he said.
Closing the museum in winter to “breathe new life into the space” might even become an annual event, Button said.
“A great way to pay attention to things you didn’t notice before is to change their position,” she said.
Her goal is a simple one: to make the museum a cool place to be.
“Museums don’t have to be stodgy and boring. The best museums are a little bit funky,” she said.
If you go
Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and veterans, and $1 for youth, kids under 5 are free.
East Benton County Historical Society members are free. Annual membership is $35 a year per person, or $50 for a family or couple.