By Colleen Schafroth, Executive Director
For 33 years, the last 18 as executive director of Maryhill Museum of Art, I’ve had the enormous privilege to work in a beautiful building, surrounded by awe-inspiring art and artifacts every day. It’s wonderful.
But more importantly, I have had the privilege of working in a museum.
Museums matter. I believe this whole heartedly and with every fiber of my being. Museums have a huge responsibility. Not just because a museum is a private non-profit with obligations under law, but because of our deeper core reason for existing – to tell stories through objects and, ultimately, bring all of us closer together.
Here are some of the ways that museums do this.
Museums matter because they tell STORIES
Stories about you, me, our neighbors and friends. Museums tell the stories that make us who we are – stories about our families, towns, farms and factories. Sometimes, they tell us stories we may not know about. Stories about inventions, new ideas, or accomplishments that shaped civilization as we know. They tell us stories about our towns, counties, states, and country in new ways and with different perspectives.
Museums matter because they keep THINGS.
Things that can help us understand where we’ve been and sometimes where we could be going.
THINGS. Bird, animal and plant collections in natural history museums contain information about changes in the natural world that can help scientists as they grapple with challenges such as pollution, global warming, or declining populations. In some cases, their specimens represent our only knowledge of extinct animals or plants.
THINGS. Painting, sculptures and all things beautiful and not so beautiful that man has made – our art, culture and yes, history museums, present the enormous skill and drive of the human race and our need to express thoughts, emotions, and ideas. The things that separate us from the rest of the animal world, that make us human.
This painting by Edwin Douglas really speaks to me—I do love dogs, had several dogs in my lifetime and spent time sketching them. I am in truly in awe of the manner in which Douglas presented this dog: the mastery of the bones and muscles under the carefully painted fur, but also because I’ve been around enough dogs to know that this dog really wants that Bannock (Scottish trail bread) on the hearth. He is as close as he can be to the bread, drooling and looking back over his shoulder at who I believe to be the person in the room that can make it happen. So this painting to me is not only a great representation of a dog, but also a physiological portrait of desire.
THINGS. Documents, letters, a bonnet, wedding dress, a telephone, pitchfork and, even a smartphone, are the things that tell us about human lives, past and present. The things that made our lives easier and happier. And, yes, sometimes these objects tell us about harder, sadder and occasionally horrific deeds and times. These objects are proof, if you will, of both the good and the bad times. These objects help us understand where we have come from and can help shape where we go from here.
A great example of this type of object is Sam Hill’s American Road Builders Association Membership Pin (right).Of all the photographs and documents that the museum has, this pin of Samuel Hill is remarkable. Building great roads was awfully important to Hill and really was the passion of his life — he wasn’t called the father of good roads for nothing. This membership pin represented Hill’s trust in an idea, and for me, it exemplifies the passion and the drive Hill had for building highways. As is the poem found in Sam Hill’s Birthday Scrapbook. It is as if Hill were alive—all 6 foot of him—beaming about his roads.
The Hill of whom I’m singing,
Is a man of noble mold.
Who’s freely, kindly bringing
Blessings rarer than the gold
He’s building splendid highways
Where no highways were before,
And Welcoming prosperity
To crown his county o’er
There’s happiness in plenty
Where he’s filled the land with cheer,
And in our lovely Washington
Men love him far and near.
~Anonymous, Samuel Hill Birthday Wishes Scrapbook
Museums matter because they BRING US TOGETHER.
Lastly, museums bring us together. They bring us together to share stories, to study our world, to admire what we cannot create ourselves, to learn from what we did, and to better understand what we need to change in order to make our lives better. Museums give us opportunities to marvel at our collective ingenuity and success, to understand our pain. Once we understand where we have been, we can work together for a better future. Museums also bring communities together, to rejoice in our heritage, our common history, our challenges and our future.
Maryhill Museum of Art is filled with stories and objects like the two I’ve mentioned above. While one of the most visible stories we tell is about Sam Hill and how Maryhill came to be, this story branches into many directions, including Sam Hill’s dream of building a home and a Quaker farming community at Maryhill, his passion for roads and for honoring WWI soldiers who perished. There are stories of his friendship with Loïe Fuller, Queen Marie of Romania and Alma de Brettville Spreckels. Our Indigenous Peoples Gallery tells us about the Columbia River Gorge and the people who have lived here for centuries. Our international chess sets offer a lens into people and cultures the world over. In the Théâtre de la Mode exhibit, you can learn about the intersection of WWII and fashion, and how designers worked together to rebuild after the war. Our exhibits by contemporary artists tell us about the world as we know it today. When you visit Maryhill, your interpretation of each of those stories is further influenced by YOUR OWN story. Where you come from, where you live and what you believe. This is how we connect to art and to one another.
And that is why museums matter.