Bainbridge Island Historical Museum tells stories of drama past and present

Bainbridge Island Historical Museum curator Rick Chandler holds an orca bone that is part of the “Whales in our Midst” exhibit.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Bainbridge Island Historical Museum curator Rick Chandler holds an orca bone that is part of the “Whales in our Midst” exhibit.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

It’s all here. Encapsulated in roughly 1,500 square feet, in every medium imaginable — stories of human drama.

If you’re picturing musty displays of mannequins and static dioramas, think again.

To put it in perspective: Only three museums in the state of Washington have won a MUSE award from the American Association of Museums for excellence in use of media and technology – the Experience Music Project, Seattle Art Museum, and in 2008, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. Really.

“It’s surprising though, how many islanders say they’ve never been here,” said Hank Helm, the museum’s director.

The main exhibit, An Island Story, set in the old schoolhouse structure circa 1908, is wired for the 21st century. Motion detectors trigger audio files and interactive maps highlight island resources.

The exhibits offer glimpses into the drama of Japanese-Americans during World War II, travel on the Mosquito Fleet, loggers, fisherman, teachers and the indigenous who lived here before it was “discovered.” Quill-penned documents, curiosities, “discovery drawers,” 200 taped oral histories and a cross-referenced digital database make those stories come alive.

Rhett Stephens, who moved to the island in June, brought his three children to the museum Monday afternoon to convey to them “the importance of a sense of place and history,” he said.

The museum has a traveling exhibit, too. But here’s the twist: This one, about orcas, originated here and will begin touring in January to communities many times the size of Bainbridge. Orcas are a fairly common topic in the Pacific Northwest, but this exhibit stems from the “Orca Survey,” which began in 1976. Museum curator Rick Chandler rode the boats out of Eagle Harbor with scientist Ken Balcomb at the very beginning of the photo-identification research that continues today with Balcomb’s Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island.

In fact, just last week Orca Network reported seeing a newborn in J pod, one of the local families of orcas.

The exhibit, designed by Chandler, follows the capture of orcas in northwest waters for SeaWorld and aquariums. It was very controversial at the time, (read: drama) particularly when whales died in the process. This led to legislation that outlawed the capture of whales in the U.S. Even so, the large mammals have gone from 230 to 88 in the last 30 years, and with the demise of the Chinook, their future is precarious. In other words, more drama.

But not all drama is past tense.

There will be plenty of it at 2 p.m. Saturday when the museum announces the winners of its fundraising raffle. First prize is 20 percent of the raffle sales, which Helm said would mean at least $2,000 to the lucky winner. Second place is a hand-crafted four-drawer cherry buffet with dove-tail joints and cedar drawers donated by McKinnon Furniture in Seattle.

Tickets, $10 each or three for $25, are available from 10 a.m. to noon on Friday at Ace Hardware and again from 9 a.m. to noon at the museum on Saturday. Sales close at noon, and the winner announced at 2 p.m.

“The reason we’re having the raffle is to raise funds. Cuts in funding to the Arts and Humanities Council have hurt us,” Helm said, referring to the current drama besetting many of the island’s nonprofits.

Helm, who became director in August 2008 has plans for a program to teach school children how to create an exhibit but these and other programs are on hold while they instead figure out how to keep the lights on. Will they? Won’t they? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, there’s sure to be plenty of drama.

Tales in our midst

The Bainbridge Island Historical Museum

215 Ericksen Avenue


Admission: $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for students and seniors and $5 for a family. Admission is free to Society members and children under 5.

Walk in the Woods

From 1-4 p.m. Nov. 28, the museum co-hosts IslandWood’s annual Fall Family Afternoon, which this year celebrates Bainbridge Island Japanese American families and is dedicated to the late Junkoh Harui. The event includes music, food, origami, storytelling, ancestry information and the chance to roam the trails of IslandWood. Oral histories will be recorded as well. For more information, see the museum Web site, or go to

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