Tacoma’s Museums: Filled with Life, Not just Objects

by Kristine Clark

While it wasn’t the first movie to do so, Night at the Museum (2006) helped popularize the imaginative concepts of nighttime magic and mayhem in the museum for current generations of museumgoers. In the movie, the museum comes to life because of a curse. In Tacoma, the museums came to life because of the WMA conference! With a packed program filling the daytime hours, Tacoma’s museums took turns hosting evening events that proved they are full of life in various ways.

Night #1: Tacoma Art Museum

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Entering the lobby, there was no missing the larger-than-life ofrenda on display and sand tapestry on the middle of the floor in anticipation of the upcoming Dia de los Muertos. Embracing the ephemeral nature of both the 

ofrendas, tapete, and the lives they honor, the Tacoma Art Museum also devoted an entire gallery space for members of the community to set up their own. In this way, a family tradition is elevated to an aesthetic display within ‘the white cube.’ I wonder…is the white cube also transformed by its visitors? Beyond the colorful prayer flags, is there an increased visitorship among the Latinx community? Did these local families duplicate the ofrendas from inside their houses, or do they now consider the museum their home? After seeing how the movie Coco portrayed deceased family members crossing a bridge to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertos, I imagine these ancestors making the journey and finding themselves inside a museum. What would they think? What would that party be like?

What I find beautiful is that it’s not the objects that are coming to life, but the concept of memory and the role we play in preserving it. It’s the people who have come into this space to provide a physical manifestation for the intangible nature of remembrance. It’s the visitors who come, see, and think about our own families and cultural connections.

Night #2: Museum of Glass

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At the Museum of Glass, music and myth infused glass with a life I didn’t think possible. All I knew before attending was that Tacoma was home of Dale Chihuly. With that, I expected to see an homage to his colorful shape-shifting style. What I encountered instead took me by surprise. The contemporary work of Sara Young and Tyler Budge in Foraging the Hive was visually stunning. I loved how glass was brought to life through the concept of collaboration. I found the imperative to understand bees’ role in life as we know it a relevant notion, with political implications in terms of “the power we have as a society towork together and create new ideas.” The immense installation was a beautiful visual for the power of the collective. My only regret? Not making my own to be added to “the swarm.”

Night #3: Tacoma History Museum

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With a fortune teller and magician roaming the building, the Tacoma History Museum imbued the night with a sense of possibility. More profoundly than a crystal ball’s image of my future was the exhibit on the ground floor that spoke directly to Washington’s residents. The first thing I saw was an interactive map titled, “Where do you come from?” with magnetic discs that show people from all over the world have visited. The “Step Into My Shoes” display with sixteen diverse residents’ shoes, faces, and voices projected together speak to a state’s commitment to honor everyone who lives there. Such statements are supported by the “Migration Station,” which asked “Why is Washington important to you?” and “Why is Washington home?” Clearly, at the Tacoma History Museum history is something that is still in the making. It honors the past, notes the present, and invites visitors to think about how they are creating the future. It’s so important for history museums to make its visitors aware of how they are contributing to history, too. It’s not just looking backwards, but being aware of how we are paving the way for the future.

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In Night at the Museum, Dick van Dyke gives Ben Stiller his most critical instruction: nothing is allowed “in or out.” If lively museum experiences were something that were doomed to stay within museum walls, that would be a tragedy! Just think about how many great conversations have been shared with friends over an amazing exhibit…it’s no surprise the strongest tool for attracting visitors is still word-of-mouth.

Museums should want to bring people in with relevant content that still brims with life and emotion. And send them out with thought-provoking ideas that linger and leave them considering new perspectives.

While Tacoma’s museums opened their doors to us at night, let’s not forget to bring the museum to life every hour of the day. When planning exhibits and facilitating programs, let’s craft experiences that bring the museum to life for visitors in ways that surprise them—without fearing they’ll be eaten by a T. Rex.



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