Collections Program: Preserving the past

Meet Washington State Parks Collections, a key keeper of Washington’s history

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 worn but stately historic 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. But what happens to historic objects discovered in state parks?

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Making sense of grandma’s attic

Room after room behind Woods’ office holds artifacts. Some have been catalogued and boxed, but Woods isn’t joking when she says her backlog is 102 years, the age of Washington’s first state park.

Sometimes Woods says she feels like she spends her days in a grandma’s attic. Many of the letters, furniture pieces, tools, signs, textiles 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 “provenience,” meaning Woods and her colleagues don’t know which park they came from, their vintage or their importance.

Getting out of the basement

Washington State Parks has been a region-wide leader in the preservation of both artifacts and historic buildings. Woods helped open the first central State Parks collections facility (which included a curator) in the Pacific Northwest. In her position, she has to know what the agency has, catalog the artifacts, house them to state and federal standards, load their information into the agency database 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 staff give interpretive talks in the classroom.

The path of a State Parks artifact

The Collections repository must meet federal and state standards for collections care. 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 also flat files and slide files.

“We have more than 500,000 slides of state and agency history to be digitized and catalogued,” said Woods.

The curator of collections does not only work with objects and processes. Woods’ job requires people skills and sensitivity.

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,” she 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 (NAGPRA) to start the repatriation process. Woods notes there are often multiple tribes involved.

The human behind the collection

Woods’ supervisor, Lisa Lantz, director of stewardship for Washington State Parks and a botanist by trade, has deep admiration for Woods.

“The task is monumental, and Alicia is overloaded,” said Lantz. “But she’s organized and passionate about the work. She cares very much about the objects in her charge.”

After earning a BA in archaeology and museology from the University of Washington, with practicum credits and project work at the Burke Museum, Woods came to State Parks in 2007. She has since worked in Collections, on a NAGPRA grant and in the agency’s map room, a position she now supervises.

She enjoys working with tribes and school groups, but she ultimately returns to her basement, where she interacts by phone and email with stewardship, planning, interpretive and park staff on a variety of projects.

“I’m mostly holed up here, but this work is far-reaching and highly collaborative,” she said.

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 both instructive and inspiring.

“They were innovated for survival,” said Woods. “Many of the pre-contact inventions were brilliant.”

From hand-hewn tools, to documentation of parks built by early women’s clubs, she believes artifacts channel Washington stories in ways that other learning methods cannot.

“When I go into schools,” she said, “the children’s curiosity…, watching them touch the artifacts, the questions they ask… They get it.”

Lantz estimates State Parks has a million artifacts, and she notes that Collections is part of State Parks’ mission to care for Washington’s most treasured places.

“These artifacts are part of those places,” said Lantz.

Woods lauds State Parks for its 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.”