Anacortes Museum

Interview with Bret Lunsford by Kate Clark on December 28th, 2012 |

KC: How was the Anacortes Museum founded?

BL: That touches upon a lot of the questions of changes in technology and how people interact with archives. It was around 1950 that Wallie Funk came back to Anacortes and bought the Anacortes American newspaper. One of the first editorials he wrote was on the neglect of history. He started to collect historical photos for the newspaper. He and Glenn Davis made copy negatives of these original pioneer photos of Fidalgo and Guemes island, and enlarged them to 16×20, 100 some images were put on display at city hall and given an opening where hundreds of people came. That was the start of the Anacortes Museum. The museum moved into the old Carnegie Library building in 1968. It was mainly a volunteer organization, but they started to have some paid staff. At a certain point Wallie donated his vast collection of images. Wallie Funk paid about 20 dollars for a truck full of negatives that was being hauled to the dump, saving thousands of crucial photos of Anacortes photographer Ferd Brady.

KC: Could you talk about the relationship to the community museum as a brick and mortar space?

B: Brick and mortar is a fairly common term to illustrate how web based businesses the virtual economy, developed and how it’s caused difficulty amongst “brick & mortar” stores that have to pay rent and maintain staff during operating hours, so those spaces are at a competitive disadvantage.tumblr_inline_mi4xdnjtt01qz4rgp

As it applies to museums, when I’m sitting at a chamber of commerce meeting and I’m listening to retailers on Commercial Avenue, they’re talking about their sales dropping, and seeing online sales increasing 15-20% yearly. There’s a point at which you have to wonder how retailing on Commercial Avenue is going to evolve. City programs and government and non profits who are tied into the tax revenue that are tied to the brick and mortar retailers, they are pondering the same question that a museum is pondering: How am I going to get customers through the door, how am I going to compete? What am I going to do differently?

I used to joke, when I was running the Business, I referred to it, as the Living Museum of Independent Retail, and that we should sell tickets at the door for people to get in. What they would buy from us would be gift shop items.

As a museum, we are a city institution, but we really are charged with looking past other organizations in how they look at their archives. Most of them don’t think of archives, they think of things that are of use, and things that are not of use. So if the school district has that mentality, and they have a room full of archived basketball videotapes, and they’ve reached a point where they need to remodel that room, well, maybe a handful of them are distributed to interested people, the rest of them are thrown away. How many people in this town would love to have access to films of themselves playing basketball in high school, or any other sport, or the high school play? Those things are in the collection. You might want to show some of your plays that you were in high school to your kids. Do you still have your copies?

KC: I don’t think so.

BL: And so who does? Those are the kinds of questions as a community, especially a small community, that drive me. We are a small town, we can get to the edges of collecting and do a pretty good job of filling in the gaps,  so that there are only a few missing teeth.

That was the case with the Croatian Fishing Families of Anacortes book I wrote, you had the ability to get to the edges of everything that was covered and at least reference what wasn’t. For example, I wanted to find a particular person, Harry Smith (the artist) in an elementary school photo. In the era, there weren’t formal ways of taking school pictures, they were sporadic, before it was the business it became. What does it take to collect all of those school photos from the school district? I went to the school district and most of the people in the offices had them, so we scanned them at the museum.  Once they are made available, then people in the community can identify them for genealogical work. I think that it’s a way to say, “we think that the history of this town is important and here’s why. We are this kind of people. Here are some examples. Here’s what we did, here are some of our accomplishments athletes, or dramatists, or artists.”

We have as a culture, during the past 20 or so years, shot how many hundreds of hours of video, and watched what percentage? Where is it stored? It is the people who have stored it well, labeled it well, who have done a good job of exposure and focus; they are going to form the core collections. Other people will have there VHS tapes thrown away or sold at garage sales, and all of the sudden you are watching people’s personal tapes, that you bought along  with Toy Story.  And although that’s a scary thing to consider, I think that video archives are going to be something for people to get into.

KC: How do you see brick and mortar spaces relating to newer forms of technology and communication?

BL: Technology trains us in how we are going to interact with the world and what we are going to spend our attention on. Everyone has their facebook page, social networking time. All of the sudden you can now invest in what was a nonexistent part of leisure. Internet screen time has now grown to squeeze everything out, such as visits to the museum. The items in the museum, or the shop, pale in comparison to the vastness, if you want to have sky is the limit selection.

My sense is that if you walk into a museum that doesn’t have a screen, then you are setting a tone, maybe it’s a tone that you want to set, but if you haven’t decided to put a screen in your facility, then it strikes me that you are missing out on an opportunity to connect with people who have grown dependent on screens as a means for information, it’s so dominant in other people’s lives, whether or not it’s articulated, I think it’s absence is felt

But I think that there can be, with this new technology, a democratization of the collection without any risk to the fragile objects. The information and the images can be made available for interpretation to researchers that could become publishers or exhibiters that would come back to the museum.

The first step is to get the collection searchable for students so they can explore on their own terms. Once that door is open, I think there are all different kinds of projects. One idea I had would be to publicize the searchable database by having an exhibit that would be the people’s choice. You would say, “Hey, go online, pick the images or objects you want to see exhibited and send us an email saying why.” People want to have personal involvement and feel that their voice is heard.

Anacortes, Washington, c1945 (Image: Rob Ketcherside)

Anacortes, Washington, c1945 (Image: Rob Ketcherside)

KC: The screen is one way to connect people to the space, what about the content itself? Right now at the museum there’s an exhibition about local native plants, before that there was an exhibition about colorful characters of Anacortes. Outside of the methods of how the information is being shared, how do you see the content of the museum evolving?

BL: There was a period during the 70’s where someone told the museum that you couldn’t have any light touching any part of the museum because it was going to burn everything, so they boarded up all the windows, and covered the fir floors. When that was all changed back closer to the original Carnegie Library interior, it had a noticeable effect on the room.  When people come to the Anacortes Museum, they feel like they are in a historic building. I think that feeling of the building has as much to do with their experience of the museum as any particular exhibit content.

KC: It’s interesting to hear to you talk about the characteristic physical aspects of the museum. As you said, people are virtually creating their own personal archives, and a lot of the content that we are producing is self-circular. If that seems like an opposite experience to the creaky floor museums, how could they meet?

BL: I guess it’s a question of pace, jumping onto the moving conveyer belt. Are we at a point where everyone’s used to being able to slideshow a hundred images they’ve brought up on google, particular  to their interest in that moment. So the idea of going to an exhibition that’s static for two years, is a really different pace than people are used to intaking information and entertainment, so that’s already a situation. Maybe we take it into the meditative sensory deprivation pace, where people go in and they are in a different universe

KC: I wonder than too, how long does this trail of object collecting go on? As our town rattles on throughout history, is our tail of things going to get longer and longer? Does it shed off eventually? Does it all become a document? It’s interesting thinking about how we all have these collections of videos in our garages, or the school that has them. Basically the time when it goes through some transition, is when the room needs to be remodeled, or someone dies, so these things need to be dealt with. That’s when there’s the potential for all of these materials to be archived or shed off in some way. It seems with the next wave of submissions to the museum will be VHS’s or things that come from 20 years ago, from people who are getting older that have a whole backlog of information. It makes me think that the content for a community archive is always lagging by half a generation.

BL: Maybe you have a centennial celebration, and there’s a seal that’s made, you know there’s manufactured significance there. But for example, whenever everyone has a particular kind of crab pot, maybe the old ones that have cotton mesh that were dipped in tar, I don’t know exactly how they were made, but new technology comes in, and for the next 20 years they are garbage. It’s only the people that saved their old crab trap in the rafters of their garage. “Remember how we used to have those?” Maybe that’s an important part of the story to Anacortes.

I think that one of the ways that culture deals with mortality is the act of generational baton passing of what is seen as important, so it comes naturally to want to examine the past. There are usually people who are feeling distress about their ultimate demise and want what they think is important to be remembered. And there are usually some young people who love those old people or are intrigued by what they are saying and so I think that’s one reason to look in to the past. Maybe it’s the root of all reasons.

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Anacortes Museum
1305 8th Street
Anacortes, WA 98221
(360) 293-1915

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Bret Lunsford is Education Curator at the Anacortes Museum and native to Anacortes, a town of 15,000 people on Fidalgo Island in Washington State. Through various entry points, Bret’s work has been dedicated to preserving and strengthening the unique history and culture of the town.

He has currently serves as a boardmember of the American Croatian Club of Anacortes, the Anacortes Futures Project, and the Skagit County Historical Museum. A member of the post-punk band Beat Happening, Lunsford now helps organize the indie music festival What the Heck Fest. He is author of Images of America: Anacortes and Croatian Fishing Families of Anacortes. I first got to know Bret Lunsford 15 years ago as owner of The Business, an independent book and record store, café, art space, venue, photography studio, and community hub. On December 28th, 2011 we met to talk about the relationship of the Anacortes museum to its town.

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