WMA Member Spotlight on Foss Waterway Seaport
By Wesley Wenhardt, Executive Director, Foss Waterway Seaport
Twenty years ago, who would have ever guessed that Tacoma, Washington would become one of the fast-growing cities in the country? It wasn’t too long ago when deadly shootouts in Hilltop and endless rows of dilapidated buildings along Dock Street made some people wonder if it would be better to bulldoze everything and start over. Thankfully, the $100 M Superfund cleanup of the once heavily polluted industrial Foss Waterway along with the decision by the University of Washington to locate a campus along Pacific Avenue helped spur the urban renewal that we now see happening in Tacoma’s downtown core. With inviting shops, upscale eateries, and several fantastic museums, Pacific Avenue has become a dream destination for people looking to indulge in great shopping, eat fantastic food and enjoy unique cultural events.
But, what about the north end of Dock Street?
Well, thanks to the incredible vision and commitment of the Foss Waterway Board of Directors, Development Authority, the City of Tacoma, Metro Parks Tacoma and the Foss Waterway Seaport staff, volunteers and members, more people are flocking here than ever before to see what the Seaport has to offer. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 118-year old Balfour Docks Building houses the Seaport. Once part of a mile-long stretch of grain warehouses and originally built to accommodate cargo “arriving by rail and departing by sail”, the building had a number of uses before the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum moved in. Through all of those various uses, our building has gained an unmistakable sense of character that few other museums in the area can offer. With a ceiling that stretches up to 55’ tall to the over 140 ft. long wooden spans cut from old-growth timber, We are proud to be the custodians of a building with a direct link to Tacoma’s maritime heritage and building a community on the waterfront.
In recent years, we’ve made some major improvements. Stabilizing and restoring the structure, we added central air to building in a process that can be summed up as nearly impossible! Try adding heat and air conditioning to a 45,000 sq. ft. building from 1900 in a manner that doesn’t change the character of the building while also taking into account the needs of our growing museum and event spaces. We have grown out our marine education space to better serve the hundreds of area schoolchildren and college students who take part in some of our exciting educational programming. Finally, in the last year, we finished construction on an administration area that allowed us to consolidate offices and collections under one roof. During that construction, we also upgraded our communications infrastructure giving us the technology and Internet speeds necessary for a space that seeks to involve the community in everything that it does.
Throughout all of the recent changes, some things haven’t changed. We still continue to have a working wooden boat shop at the Seaport where a skilled group of volunteers and local artisans gather to help us restore parts of our collection as well as help fashion new pieces that allow those volunteers to pass down years of experience and know-how to curious new learners. The Seaport acknowledges the vital role that railroads played in both the history of Tacoma and the maritime industry in our Rails to Sails exhibit. With a scale train layout and railroad artifacts from the early 20th century, visitors can see how trains helped to deliver the products produced in the area to locations throughout the world.
As we have matured, the Seaport is commissioning larger and more complex exhibits. On February 15, 2018, the Seaport opened First on the Waterways: The Puyallup People, (spuyaləpabš). An exhibit that examines the history of the Puyallup People and their intimate connection to the Salish Sea and the Puyallup River and their wider presence in the South Puget Sound region. At one point, the land that the Foss Waterway Seaport sits on was Puyallup Tribal land. What makes this exhibit especially significant is the full cooperation and involvement by the Puyallup Tribe. Our exhibit design team and the Seaport board members wanted to ensure that the storytelling about the Puyallup Tribe was framed and presented from their point of view. Despite only being open for a few days at the time of this blog entry, the early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. The initial planning has already begun for our next larger exhibit, so stay tuned!
October will be here before we know it and the Foss Waterway Seaport is proud that the Western Museums Association has chosen Tacoma for this year’s Annual Meeting. What a vote of confidence in our ambitious and rapidly changing community. We eagerly await the opportunity to welcome museum professionals from across the Canada, Mexico and the States, and even places further afield, get together to network, connect and pass along valuable tips, and maybe share in a few laughs. We’ve played host to a memorable WMA conference in the past and absolutely promise a one of a kind event this time as well. Everyone here at the Seaport from our dedicated board members to our passionate and talented volunteers and staff members look forward to welcoming you aboard with our passion for the Seaport and the City of Tacoma.
Lastly, while you’re in Tacoma this year, don’t miss getting coffee and a croissant at Café Corina, a glass of wine at Pacific Grill, or a memorable walk down the Foss Waterway Esplanade or Ruston Way. We’ll see you in October!
Wesley Wenhardt is the Executive Director of the Foss Waterway Seaport since 2013. Wes is a graduate of the Getty Leadership Institute (2009) and has served on the Board of Western Museums Association since 2009 and currently is on the Board of the Commonwealth Museums Association. He has opened museums, science centers and IMAX Theaters all over the world and truly believes that Tacoma is the City of Destiny!