Definitely Famous: Museum exhibit gathers state icons under one roof

Imagine you are asked to tell Washington State’s history through images and artifacts.

What would you include?

An early oil painting of Mount Rainier? Artifacts left behind by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805? How about a poster from the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle?

We know what makes Washington State, well, Washington State. But selecting Washington’s icons could lead to one very long list. Thankfully, someone else has done this work for us.

“Icons of Washington History,” an exhibit currently on display at the Washington State History Museum in downtown Tacoma, is one exhibit Washington newcomers, visitors, and long-time residents will surely enjoy. Museum Director David L. Nicandri has selected from the society’s vast collection items that are historically revered (examples include an ink well recovered from Lewis and Clark’s camp; plate proofs dating back to 1798 from George Vancouver’s ‘Voyage of Discovery’; a painting by Gustav Sohon from 1855 showing Governor Stevens meeting with the Walla Walla Council; and a map of Fort Vancouver drawn in 1846 by Hudson’s Bay Company cartographer Richard Covington) and just plain fun (a chunk of concrete from the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge, known by locals as ‘Galloping Gertie’ because of the way it pitched and swayed by strong winds before collapsing on Nov. 7, 1940).

“‘Icon’ is an elastic term, but there is a commonality to it,” explains Nicandri. “There has to be an instant recognizability to the image or the form, or the object has to tell a story of an iconic form. It’s either very attractive visually or it tells a story. My definition of an icon is that the object has a high quotient of story-telling ability that transcends its shape and form.”

Nicandri, who has been the museum director for 24 years, has wanted to present this exhibit for a long time. “There just never seemed to be time,” he adds. “I finally figured that if I don’t make time, it might never happen before I step away from this job. I decided it was time to pull the trigger and put this show together. ”

Last week, Nicandri invited the Tacoma Daily Index on a personal tour of the exhibit. His comments from that tour are featured in today’s edition. We begin by discussing two items recovered from the former Rainier Brewery in Seattle: a late-19th century painting of Mount Rainier by James Everett Stuart; and the original ‘Wild Rainier’ beer bottle costumes featured in the company’s iconic ad campaign.

DAVID L. NICANDRI ON RAINIER BREWERY TREASURES

This, of course, is the icon of icons — Mount Rainier. This, we think, is the largest extant painting of Mount Rainier done by James Everett Stuart in 1889. This is his biggest piece on Mount Rainier, taken from a northerly vantage point. This image was in the tap room of the Rainier Brewery for decades. We’ve restored it for this show. It’s probably the biggest conservation project we’ve ever undertaken — both the canvas and the frame. The image, unframed, is 12 feet wide and 6 feet high. It’s monumental and very eye-catching. It has never been on display in its restored state. When the Rainier Brewery closed, we got a lot of the promotional material, including a full set of these famous ‘Wild Rainiers.’ These were a famous series of advertisements in the 1970s.

NICANDRI ON A MUSEUM ANTIQUITIES CASE

I refer to this as the serial antiquity case. The oldest known piece of antiquity — human-originated material in the State of Washington — is this clovis point from East Wenatchee. The oldest form of Euro-American antiquity known to be extant in the State of Washington are these bricks from a Spanish fort up in Neah Bay constructed in 1790. Finally, this is arguably — and we need to do some more tests — but it strongly suggests that the oldest piece of American antiquity ever found in the State of Washington is this ink well taken from Station Camp in Pacific County where Lewis and Clark ended their voyage in the fall of 1805.

NICANDRI ON EZRA MEEKER’S WAGON

This hasn’t been on view now for probably 15 years. Late in his life, Ezra Meeker was basically a professional pioneer, for lack of a better way of phrasing it. It’s a nice line of work if you can get it. He was doing these re-enactments to call attention to the Oregon Trail. He wanted to create a national memorial for the Oregon Trail. He saw people forgetting that period of history. About the same time, the Washington State Historical Society was being formed here in Tacoma. Of course, Ezra was just living out there in Puyallup. He was one of the early society members and was obviously interested in history. He was an expert and a major figure in state history up to that point. He was a fervent storyteller. When he finished all of his re-enactments, he donated the wagon to the Washington State Historical Society. He gave both the wagon and his ox team — Dave and Dandy — to the society, which, at the time, was in our old building on Stadium Way. The State went through some budget cuts and they couldn’t afford to keep the oxen, which were in a little pen outside. The state ran out of money and ended up butchering the oxen and stuffing them, and everything was moved from outside to inside.

NICANDRI ON PLATE PROOFS FROM GEORGE VANCOUVER’S VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY

This red leather-bound book contains the plate proofs from George Vancouver’s ‘Voyage of Discovery’ published in 1798. Before photography and lithography, to give someone an idea of an image, you had to do an engraving. Basically, that was to etch out in soft metal — usually copper — the reverse of an image. In other words, the negative was crafted by hand by an engraver working in soft metal. To check how the engraving was coming along, the engraver or team of engravers would stop every once in a while, ink the plate, take an impression of it, then look at the positive image and see how they were doing. Well, this book contains the proofs for all of the engravings and all of the maps for Vancouver’s atlas. There are only five versions of this book. The King of England got one, the Royal Geographic Society got one, the British Navy got one, and Vancouver’s family got two. We got one of those, which our organization bought in 1905 for $5,000. It contains the first published image of Mount Rainier.

‘Icons of Washington History’ is on display through July 3, 2010. More information is available online here.

A PDF version of the print edition of this article, which includes additional photographs, is available online here.

A poster from the 'Wild Rainier' ad campaign from Rainier Brewery is part of the Washington State History Museum's exhibit 'Icons of Washington History.' The exhibit includes one of the original beer bottle costumes featured in the advertisements. (IMAGE COURTESY WASHINGTON STATE HISTORY MUSEUM)

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.