• Must Clicks

Washougal museum emerges from pandemic with new hours, new vision for the future

Two Rivers Heritage Museum is now open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays, March through October; offering private tours for groups of 8 or more

Camas-Washougal Historical Society board member Richard Johnson opens a file cabinet filled with old photographs at Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal on Thursday, March 31, 2022. The museum is working with the Clark County Historical Museum and Washington State University-Vancouver to digitize its entire photograph collection. (Photos by Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Camas-Washougal Historical Society board member Richard Johnson (right) holds a vintage photograph while his wife, Karen Johnson (left), flips through file folders filled with old images at Two Rivers Heritage Museum in Washougal on Thursday, March 31, 2022.

"To Catch a Fish," a new exhibit at the Washougal-based Two Rivers Heritage Museum, displays the life of a local fisherman in the early 20th century on Thursday, March 31, 2022.

Several months ago, Camas-Washougal Historical Society (CWHS) board members made a significant change to the public availability of Two Rivers Heritage Museum, condensing the number of open days per week from four to one for 2022 and beyond.

They didn’t make the decision lightly, but in the end felt as though they really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. The amount of visitors — or lack thereof — was making it for them.

“Prior to COVID, we were seeing a downfall in activity — usually, during two and sometimes three of those days, there would be zero visitors,” board member Richard Johnson said. “That had an impact on the volunteers who sat here all day sweeping floors.”

In previous years, the museum opened every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March through October. Now it opens to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays during the same months, and offers year-round private tours to groups of eight or more people during the week.

The change has been well-received by museum volunteers and visitors alike.

“We had hoped that it wouldn’t make too big of a (financial) impact, but it hasn’t been bad at all,” Johnson said. “We got an extra marking push for the opening (weekend), so that helped. In the analysis after the fact, the Saturdays, plus the guided tours, have yielded about the same numbers as we had for the four days per week. It’s been a fruitful effort.”

Museum availability is not the only thing that CWHS board members and museum volunteers have changed for 2022, however. They worked for several months to expand and update displays, catalog items, digitize photographs, perform maintenance work, and plan activities and events to get the museum ready for its reopening in early March.

Now, the volunteers say they’re pleased with how the museum has emerged from the COVID pandemic and are feeling optimistic about the future.

“I think right now our biggest project is cleaning up all of our loose ends,” said Jim Cobb, the president of the CWHS board of directors. “We’ve started a lot of things here that we’ve borderline completed, but not quite (completely) completed. When a lot of us came here, the stuff we had was junk. We’re trying to upgrade to ‘museum quality,’ because ‘museum quality’ is perfect. I think that would be the ultimate — for everything to be ‘museum quality.’ If we have three (identical) things, we want to take the best one and throw the other two away.”

Museum leaders and volunteers are trying to place more of an emphasis on storytelling by leveraging the museum’s exhibits and displays, as well as the Carriage House and Gathering Place at Washuxwal Pavilion, which opened in 2021.

They’re trying to make it feel less like a second-hand store and more like an actual museum, according to Karen Johnson, a museum volunteer and Richard’s wife.

“The group that started the museum kind of backed away, retired or whatever, and as the new people came in, they’re like, ‘What about this? We’ve been to other museums, and this doesn’t look like a museum,'” she said. “I think it’s been a slow (process). Somebody came in and helped us with future planning, and part of the planning was to create stories and have more instructive signage around. That started everybody moving that way, and once we got started, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what we want to do.'”

A good example of the museum’s storytelling focus can be seen in one of its new Carriage House exhibits, called “To Catch a Fish,” a collection of items that tell the story of a local man who “was a commercial fisherman back in the day when you could come home from work and go out at night and commercial fish (as long as you had) a boat license,” according to Cobb.

“We tell the stories about how the people who lived here lived,” Godlibsen said.

Museum leaders excited about riverboat stop

Museum leaders are excited about the potential impact of the American Empress riverboat, which will deliver visitors to Camas and Washougal for “shore stops” every week starting in June.

“We’re really looking forward to that,” said Lois Cobb, the museum’s tour coordinator.

Shelly Hartfield, the director of port services for the American Queen Steamboat Company, said during the Port of Camas-Washougal’s virtual commissioner meeting on Wednesday, March 16, that the company prefers to incorporate “some sort of historical site” into their “shore stops,” a statement that seemingly bodes well for the museum’s prospects of being included.

“We may be on the tour list. We’re not sure yet. We’re going to talk to (the company),” Richard Johnson said. “We’re very hopeful that a bus will stop between here and Pendleton (Woolen Mills Outlet Store) and (visitors) can go both ways, kind of a one-stop shop.”

Museum volunteers are already preparing for a sudden influx of visitors later this summer.

“We’re all either going to love it or hate it,” museum volunteer Ivar Godlibsen said. “It will be interesting to see how that turns out. It sounds promising, so we’ll see.”

Volunteers work to digitize photographs

Volunteers are working to digitize the museum’s vast photograph collection, which highlights East Clark County life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Two Rivers Heritage Museum Photographs Collection is a collaborative project between the Clark County Historical Museum, the Washington State University-Vancouver Library and Two Rivers Heritage Museum, funded by Clark County’s Historical Promotion Grants Program.

The collection features Camas and Washougal school buildings, student class photos, agriculture, stores and shops, social life, scenic views and more.

“Two volunteers selected (photographs) from what’s still left in the files, put them in sleeves, and cataloged them (if they weren’t already in our system),” Richard Johnson said. “We sent them to the Clark County Historical Museum and they scanned them, and Washington State University-Vancouver got the scans and they did whatever further work that they needed to do and put them on the ‘cloud.’ Then (the photographs) came back to us and we had to take them and put them back in the file that they came from. That sounds easy, but it’s not.”

Karen Johnson agreed.

“We have a couple of photo curators, but this was such a huge project (that a lot of us had to) help,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than just boxing up some pictures. There are spreadsheets involved and a method of keeping track (of the photographs). We did 1,000 pictures (in the winter of 2020-21) and another 1,000 this winter, so just keeping track of what you’re doing, you have to become procedure oriented.”

The project is not nearly finished, however.

“We’ve got about 6,000 to 7,000 good-quality photographs, so we have a ways to go,” Richard Johnson said.

To view or purchase the photos, visit content.libraries.wsu.edu/digital/collection/p16866coll16/custom/trhm.

“They can actually download it from the site and get a small one that’s not very good, but if they want a good reproduction, they can purchase a high-quality digital copy for a little bit of money,” Godlibsen said. “The businesses buy them — the Washougal Times bought a bunch from us to put on their walls.”