Interpreting natural and cultural history

Columbia Gorge museum celebrates 20 years at its Stevenson location

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What: Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, 990 S.W. Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It is closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors and students, $8; children 6 to 12, $6; family rate, $30. Call 1-800-991-2338 or visit www.columbiagorge.org for more information.

What: Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, 990 S.W. Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. It is closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors and students, $8; children 6 to 12, $6; family rate, $30. Call 1-800-991-2338 or visit www.columbiagorge.org for more information.

Robert Peterson is passionate about the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum.

He began as a part-time janitor when the Stevenson museum first opened its doors 20 years ago. Today, he serves as director.

“I filled in wherever I was needed when it was brand new and learned all the aspects to its operation,” Peterson said. “I have enjoyed it quite a bit, especially interacting with the guests. That is the best part.”

The museum, which became a reality after years of effort by the Skamania County Historical Society, features local history of the Gorge, an area that encompasses six counties, two states and 75 miles.

“This was a community project,” Peterson said. “We fundraised for 16 years to do this. This museum is a testament to the volunteers who helped and continue to serve.”

It cost $10.2 million to build the museum. A state grant provided half the money. The other half came from community efforts.

The “interpretive” part of the museum’s name came from a former editor of the local newspaper, The Skamania County Pioneer.

“He had a thing for words and liked this name,” Peterson said. “We interpret natural and cultural history, but part of it is also the presentation of history.”

Volunteers are the backbone of the museum, with approximately 30 to 40 who lend a hand when it is needed, whether to prepare for a big event or help place a new exhibit.

“We try to treat our volunteers well so that they continue to come back,” Peterson said. “We want them to feel appreciated.”

Recently, the museum celebrated its 20th anniversary, an event which drew approximately 450 attendees over a two-day period.

“I love having all the visitors come and tell us about their experiences in the area and at the museum,” he said. “They don’t always expect a lot when they come out here, but then they are planning their next visit.”

The 23,000 square foot building is constructed out of glass, with soaring ceilings and 11,000 feet worth of exhibit space. It also includes two theaters and an ever-expanding outdoor exhibit area. Items include everything from Native American collections to a restored Corliss steam engine that once powered a local sawmill. The museum also has the distinction of being named to the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest known Rosary collection.

There is a gift shop and art gallery, which features the work of Gorge artists and rotates approximately four times per year.

The indoor exhibits area is supplemented by audio-visual presentations, illustrating events that shaped Skamania County, Washington, Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge.

Internationally known Jean Jacques Andre of Victoria, British Columbia designed many of the exhibits, including a 37-foot high replica of a fish wheel and fabricated rock walls intended to look like the walls of the Gorge. It includes a waterfall.

“We wanted to make this world class and mirror the history of the local area,” Peterson said.

“We also asked the community for artifacts and other pieces that they had.”

A replica of a mine shaft was recently added to the outdoor exhibit area, and has proven popular with young visitors.

“The volunteer who built it is a retired miner and he constructed it from memory,” noted Peterson. “We wanted the outdoor area to represent the logging, farming and mining community.”

Recently, log sculptures, taken from cedar trees on Mount St. Helen’s in the late 1970s, were added to the outdoor collection as well.

The sculptures were previously located inside Clackamas Town Center in Oregon, but when the mall was redesigned, the museum was contacted to see if there was any interest in preserving them.

Emmert International, a hauling company, transported the approximately 30 foot tall sculptures, which were placed on the side of the museum, using volunteer labor.

Peterson recommends that museum visitors set aside at least an hour to peruse the collections, although he noted some people stay three or four hours.

“Our exhibits are ever-evolving and there is a lot to see,” he said. “We get approximately 25,000 visitors a year.”

With summer break beginning soon, Peterson encourages families to take a day trip to the Gorge and include the museum in their sightseeing. “We are not that far away,” he said. “It’s a great way to teach kids about the geology and culture of the Gorge in a fun way.”

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