Washington State History Museum press release.
Tacoma, WA – If you’ve been following state and national news over the past several years, you’ll have noticed a marked shift in the way many people view historic monuments. The narratives on statues, plaques, and markers often represent a singular perspective, omitting critical aspects of the person, place, or event being commemorated. With the goal of interpreting history in a more accurate and inclusive way, the Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) has embarked on a multi-year, state-wide project to evaluate the markers and monuments erected by the organization in its earlier years. A $142,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) will support the next phase of the project, helping WSHS to engage tribes and local communities in an evaluation and decision-making process, as well as developing and providing best practices guidance to heritage organizations across the state.
“This initiative grew out of our statement of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as the desire to respond to growing public interest in critically reviewing the histories memorialized in public spaces,” said WSHS director Jennifer Kilmer. “Through ‘Dialogue In Place’ we are also acknowledging and working to remedy the Historical Society’s own past role in promoting racist histories. The outcomes of this project will also include developing best practices to support the work of the over 400 history and heritage organizations in Washington as they address other monuments in their communities, so it has a ripple effect, generating change at local levels through many organizations” she added.
The WSHS has received a number of emails and phone calls from community members asking that they revisit the language on historical markers. The frequency of these communications has increased since the murder of George Floyd and news coverage related to debates around Confederate monuments.
In 2020, the WSHS began the markers and monuments project with Phase 1, a state-wide inventory that identified 43 remaining monuments and markers installed by the agency between 1900 and 1950. In Phase 2, the WSHS team convened an advisory committee to consider the inventory and prioritize markers for further review through an upcoming public process. Now, the IMLS grant will fund Phase 3: Dialogue In Place. In partnership with a consultant and the advisory committee, WSHS will develop, pilot, and evaluate a process for effective civic dialogue and tribal engagement to determine the future of these monuments and historical markers.
Polly Olsen, Yakama, is the director for DEAI and Decolonization as well as tribal liaison for the Burke Museum in Seattle, and is a member of the WSHS’s advisory committee for the project. “This is an exciting project. We are collectively reviewing the perception of the narratives on the monuments,” she said. “We will expand our learning and co-create additional interpretations of the land-based markers around the state of Washington.”
Many of the historical markers in question refer to conflicts between settler-colonizers and Indigenous people and fail to provide historical context for the events described, or acknowledge multiple perspectives. These are the types of stories the WSHS hopes to interrogate and address through the public process developed in Phase 3. In doing so, WSHS can better meet each community’s needs to acknowledge the complexities of the past, and have local markers that more fully reflect the historical record.
Dialogue In Place will culminate by implementing the recommendations that emerge from the community engagement process. WSHS will also provide resources to assist local historical organizations in developing similar engagement processes to address complex histories in their own communities.
“This is a huge and essential undertaking,” said Jay Mortensen, WSHS director of heritage outreach. “We are grateful to the Institute for Museum and Library Services for their support and endorsement through the award of this grant. We are particularly looking forward to engaging tribal partners, and are also excited that all Washingtonians will have the opportunity to be involved and directly benefit from this process.”