It’s difficult to imagine what it was like to live in one of the desolate, tar paper barracks of the Manzanar camp.
Residents of Japanese descent who lived through internment can tell stories of their experiences, but stepping into a new exhibit at the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum adds a new dimension to their history.
A model of one of the barracks allows visitors to step into the past. They can sit on a wood-framed cot, stained with age, and touch the rough wool of army blankets, which island residents slept under while dreaming of Bainbridge behind barbed wire fences.
The exhibit is one of many new features at the remodeled and relocated museum set to open Saturday for a weekend-long grand opening.
“This is a dream come true,” said George Bussell, president of the Bainbridge Island Historical Society. “Sometimes we wondered if it would ever happen. If you told me we’d have this place here five years ago, I would have shrugged. But seeing this finally come to fruition is wonderful.”
The museum’s new Ericksen Avenue location puts local history in the heart of downtown Winslow.
A climate-controlled archive, lobby and gallery swelled the museum by 1,600 square feet.
The expanded library is roomy, inviting patrons to peruse books on local history or recorded oral histories and music.
A new gallery will feature portraits of longtime residents and before-and-after pictures of local landmarks. Other featured exhibits include a photo history of the schoolhouse that serves as the museum’s main building.
For executive director Erica Varga, the museum’s new location is key.
“On Strawberry Hill we were out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “The museum is in our face now. It shows history is not going anywhere.”
The museum will also be more accessible to out-of-towners, Varga said.
“Streams of people come off the ferry looking for places to go,” she said. “Now they can come here and learn about our island’s history.”
Researchers have also showed a growing interest in the museum’s new facility.
“People in state and local government, people looking into genealogy, people researching property rights, students doing projects, the National Parks staff…there’s surprisingly a lot of people who want to come here and do research,” she said.
Society members first proposed moving the museum from Strawberry Hill Park to downtown Winslow five years ago.
The 96-year-old schoolhouse finally made the 4.5-mile trip to Ericksen Avenue in February. Only a bit of landscaping work remains, with the island’s famous Marshall strawberries set for planting on the building’s sunny west side.
The $500,000 project was made possible by more than 300 individual donors and free labor gifted by local businesses. A large bequest by the late Helen Bucey funded a large portion of the effort.
“We wouldn’t be here without Helen,” Varga said.
The remodel and relocation effort has sparked a second surge in local support for the museum. Society membership has increased to 550, and many people have volunteered to help.
“The phone is ringing off the hook,” Varga said. “It’s amazing what being visible does.”
While Varga beams with the society’s accomplishments, the focus remains on boosting awareness of local history.
“That’s what this is about,” she said. “Getting people to respect where they live by knowing about their past.”