State Parks a key keeper of Washington’s history
Artifacts found in and around state parks are carefully preserved, stored and displayed with help from agency’s Collections curator
Museologist Alicia Woods stands behind a mangled yellow truck door.
“This is a part of a Weyerhaeuser truck,” she said. “It rode a lahar down the north fork of the Toutle River during the Mount St. Helens eruption.”
As statewide curator of Collections for Washington State Parks, Woods spends most of her time in a warren of rooms beneath a historic Olympia mansion. Her job involves documenting and caring for artifacts found in and around state parks. Some, like the truck door, are fascinating. Others are mundane. Many are downright perplexing.
Washington State Parks owns or manages nearly 800 historical structures, more than any other state agency in Washington. Most are located in parks and are accessible to the public.
As for historic objects discovered in state parks, Woods has the task of cataloging, boxing and storing them in the rooms behind her office.
Sometimes Woods, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in archaeology and museology and has worked for the Burke Museum, feels like she spends her days in a grandma’s attic.
“My job is to make sure we don’t have a grandma’s attic,” Woods said.
Many of the letters, furniture pieces, tools, signs and ceramics in State Parks’ collection have cultural or historical significance. Others may have a cool factor but don’t add much to the researcher’s knowledge of Washington’s heritage.
The head-scratcher artifacts have no provenance or provenience, meaning Woods and her colleagues don’t know which park they came from, their vintage, their history, or their importance. Parks’ Stewardship Program Manager Lisa Lantz, who oversees Collections, says a large number of stone tools and projectile points in the collection fit that description.
Sometimes, however, an artifact is reunited with its story. Woods recalls touring the facility with a Native American spiritual leader who identified an object as a ceremonial rattle.
“Until he told us, we had no idea it was Native American cultural material,” Woods said.
Getting out of the basement
Washington’s parks department has been a region-wide leader in the preservation of artifacts and historic buildings. Washington’s was the first state parks department in the Pacific Northwest to hire a curator in 2007 and open a central collections facility in 2008. In her position, Woods has to know what the organization has, house objects to state and federal standards and have them ready to travel.
And, yes, the artifacts do see the light of day. Scholars and students can examine them via public request. They are loaned to museums and historical societies. They are used at parks, in interpretive exhibits and in ranger-led programming. They travel to schools, where park staffers give interpretive talks in the classroom.
Woods also sees the light of day. She enjoys a collaborative relationship with counterparts at fellow state owned and public trust collections that include The State Library, State Archives, The Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane, the Washington State Historical Society and the Burke Museum.
She and her collections colleagues also work with the Washington Department of Transportation, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, representatives from several Native American tribes and the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation to remain current on state and federal standards for artifact care.
The path of a State Parks artifact
The Collections repository must meet state and federal standards. When an artifact comes through the facility door, Woods takes it to a special decontamination room. She places it in a freezer for several days to arrest mold and kill insects.
“We then warm it up, hoping any eggs will start to hatch. After that, we refreeze it to kill the second generation,” she said.
After the second freeze, she wraps the object in plastic and looks for signs of activity inside the wrapping. Any activity would indicate that a few pests or mold spores survived, and the object would go back to the freezer.
As she walks through the facility, Woods points out dueling humidifiers and dehumidifiers and archive-quality boxes that keep the objects as healthy as possible. There are flat files and slide files housing 500,000 slides to be digitized and catalogued.
The collections curator does not only care for objects, however. The job requires sensitivity to people and cultures.
Donations and bequests can get tricky, for instance.
“If grandpa gifts an item to a park, and 15 years later his descendants see that it’s not on display, they may want it back,” Woods said.
“But the artifact was put in the public trust, and the state has been maintaining it for 15 years,” she said. “So, what do you do?”
Nowadays, donations and bequests come with contracts relinquishing all rights and restrictions.
Humans have lived in the Northwest for millennia, and burials, which are sacred to the tribes, occurred before and during Euro-American settlement. When human remains and other federally designated cultural materials are identified, State Parks complies with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to start the repatriation process. Woods notes there are often multiple tribes involved.
Artifacts large and small
Woods says the largest artifact in State Parks’ collection is a full-sized steam locomotive engine and tender, on display at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie.
The smallest artifacts are shell and glass beads.
She gestures to a grouping of stone scrapers, knives, points, pestles, hammer stones and unidentified objects; she finds the tools instructive, inspiring and humbling.
From hand-hewn tools to documentation of parks built by early women’s clubs, Woods believes artifacts channel Washington stories in ways that other learning methods cannot.
Lantz estimates the agency has a million artifacts. She notes that Collections is part of State Parks’ mission to care for Washington’s most treasured places.
“These objects are part of those places,” Lantz said.
Woods lauds State Parks and its sister agencies for their commitment to storing and showcasing Washington’s cultural resources, and she hopes people will study them for generations to come.
“We have to take care of these objects,” she said. “If we’ve done our job right, they should be here long after we’re gone.”