Exploring the Washington State History Museum

One of the Museums in Downtown Tacoma

Washington State History Museum
••• Kristin Kendle

The Washington State History Museum is part of the appeal of downtown Tacoma, and a great museum to boot. If you're new to the area, have never been to the museum or want to learn more about Washington's history, this is the place for you. The museum is home to a series of exhibits that show how Washington as we know it came to be, including how the land formed geologically, who the original inhabitants were and how and why settlers came to the area.

The museum is located prominently along Pacific Avenue close to the Tacoma Art Museum and directly in front of the Bridge of Glass (walk behind the museum to get to the bridge), which leads to the Museum of Glass. This clump of museums is one of the things that makes Tacoma unique as it's the only city in the Northwest with so many museums located so close to each other.

This part of Tacoma is where most of the top attractions are located, making this a great place to take visitors from out of town. Nearby are also a lot of downtown restaurants, including El Gaucho, Indochine and Pacific Grill, if you're looking to make an evening of your museum visit. There's plenty of casual fare, too, and even a cafe right in front of the museum.

Admission (and how to get in free)

The Washington State History Museum had an admission fee, but there are a number of ways to visit for free.

Like the Tacoma Art Museum, the history museum has free admission during Thursday Art Walks, which take place on the third Thursday of each month.

From 2 to 8 p.m., free admission is available to everyone.

 

Historical Society members also get free admission, as do children under five. Visitors can also get in for free on their birthdays. If the museum is closed on your actual birthday, you can get in the next business day.

You can also get a museum pass at either Tacoma Public or Pierce County libraries and visit for free with up to three other people.

These passes are not always available so you can call your nearest library to see if they've got a pass before you go pick it up, as all passes are first come, first served. You do need a library card to check a pass out.

Exhibits

Like most museums, this one has both permanent and temporary exhibits. Some of the best include:

Great Wall of Washington History: This exhibit details Washington State’s history in an engaging series of dioramas, videos and life-size sculptures. In fact, there are 35 human-sized sculptures that help to tell their histories through audio and video components, and unlike many museums, the life-sized sculptures are actually visually appealing and might even make you feel like you're in another time and place as you wander through the interactive exhibits. Learn about everything from prehistory to Native American culture to pioneers to present-day Washington.

History Lab Learning Center: Geared toward students and children, this exhibit offers a hands-on learning environment via computer exhibits and activities. Research history with artifacts and photos, listen to tales of the past, or play historical games. This exhibit has won awards and recognition from both the American Association of Local and State History and the American Association of Museums.

Model Railroad: Located near the History Lab on the fifth floor of the museum, this railroad exhibit is the largest model railroad in all of Washington. It was constructed by the Puget Sound Model Railroad Engineers to a 1:87 scale and is designed after the Washington State railroads of the 1950s. The first Saturday of every month, engineers run the trains from noon to 4 p.m. and follow real railroad procedures.

Others: Other exhibits include displays of Native American masks and baskets made in the area long ago that are in stunningly beautiful condition. You can also take a break and watch a movie about the history of the state in the museum's theater.

Weddings and Events at the History Museum

The museum hosts several events throughout the year. Annual festivals include the Model Train Festival between Christmas and New Year’s, and the In The Spirit market—a Northwest native arts market and festival.

Events hosted by the museum are just one facet of the events scene here. The museum building is also available for private rentals, including weddings, and the spaces here are some of the largest and most stylish in town. There is even the outdoor Boeing Amphitheater. There are several rooms and auditoriums available that can suit everything from weddings to business meetings.

Also worth considering for large-scale events and weddings is Union Station just next door.

Building History

Unlike Union Station, which is much older and a part of downtown’s history, the Washington State History Museum is newer and was built as part of the effort to revitalize the area. It was opened to the public in August 1996. The building was designed by architects Charles Moore and Arthur Andersson and contains 106,000 square feet of space. Its shape is designed to mirror both Union Station’s classic arches as well as the industrial interiors of the many warehouses located nearby (most of the former warehouses just across the street are now part of the University of Washington - Tacoma campus).

Getting There

Take Exit 133 from I-5 toward City Center. Follow signs for I-705/City Center. Take the 21st Street Exit and go left on 21st. Take a right on Pacific and the museum will be on your right.

Parking is located both behind the museum and on its south side. There is a fee for parking. You can also park in spots along Pacific Avenue or at Tacoma Art Museum, which do have parking meters that can take cash or cards. Or if you want to park for free, park at the Tacoma Dome garage and ride the Link light rail over as there's a stop right in front of the museum.

Washington State History Museum
1911 Pacific Avenue
Tacoma, WA 98402
(253) 272-3500