Top City Museums in the Pacific Northwest

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BY SOPHIA SCHOEN

The Northwest is a nature-lovers dream, abundant with spectacular scenery and no shortage of adventure hotspots. But it’s also a region ripe with history and culture. A wide variety of different museums in the Northwest’s major cities host culturally and historically diverse exhibits and collections. They tell the stories of artists, landscapes, people and traditions. Each makes a unique contribution in preserving meaningful stories and information, creating a worthwhile space to learn more about the region and to expand perspectives.

SEATTLE, Washington

A must-see museum is the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Located downtown, only a block away from the famous Pike Place Market, this museum contains incredibly diverse art collections from around the world. Their exhibits do an excellent job of including marginalized artists and voices and focusing on real-world issues that evoke strong emotions.

One of their newer exhibits is titled “Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water.” This exhibit is all about stories of water and is told by artists from around the world contemplating the role of rivers, oceans and even swimming pools. It also works as a commentary on climate change and the fate of water in our future.

Another exhibit is “Inked! Northwest Coast Silkscreen Prints from the Colwell Collection,” which is all about the making of silkscreen in Native tradition, as well as its significance in their culture in passing down histories through the generations.

Part of SAM is the Seattle Asian Art Museum, one of the only Asian art museums in the United States. Having recently expanded their space, allowing for more room for larger collections that display art from China, Korea, the Himalayas, Japan, India and South Asia, this museum is a wonderful place to learn more about the global history and traditions of Asia, along with stories from local Asian Americans.

Their biggest exhibit is “Boundless: Stories of Asian Art.” It is 12 galleries that have been categorized, rather than by region, into themes revolving around religion, dress, identity and more. This method allows viewers to see the ways these Asian cultures and traditions are connected through their similarities, yet are also different from one another, creating an understanding of the diversity within Asian cultures.

TACOMA, Washington

Founded in Tacoma in 1891 (only two years after statehood), the Washington State Historical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Washington’s history. Operating within this society is the Washington State History Museum, a hard-to-miss landmark of Tacoma’s downtown with its grand red-brick arches. The museum hosts larger historical overview exhibits, but also has a focus on smaller, marginalized communities like that of Native Americans from the state or the lives of Hispanic immigrants, giving a voice to their stories that often go unheard.

The “Great Hall of Washington History” is an integral exhibit to the museum. On permanent display, it features sizable and interactive displays that present historical artifacts from pioneers or Native Americans, the geology of Washington and Washington’s development through the ages.

An important exhibit that’s a more recent addition to the collection is “All the Sacrifices You’ve Made/Todos los Sacrificios Que has Hecho,” chronicling migrant farmer family life. It documents families living in Washington today, telling their stories through content like family photos, oral histories and personal documents.

A second popular museum in the Tacoma area is the Museum of Glass, a unique space featuring all kinds of glass art, from the popular Dale Chihuly’s Gibson Chandelier to glass art designed by children. Opportunities to watch glass blowing in action happen in The Hot Shop, where visitors can learn about the artistic process of glass art.

In an exhibit dedicated to Dale Chihuly, the artist’s elaborate and vibrantly colored glass sculptures of swirling designs are abundant. But a temporary exhibit that works more toward recording the history of glass art as a medium is “Counterparts: Glass + Art Elements.” Through a mix of glass and other forms of art, this explores the evolution of glass art, as well as the way that it has come to be accepted as a medium of art in the art world.

PORTLAND, Oregon

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is one of the leading science museums in the nation and is an exceptional learning resource for the larger community. Their public programs, including outdoor programs, digital learning opportunities and movie nights, contribute to engaging the community in the world of science and technology. Many of their exhibits are interactive, too, creating a hands-on educational experience.

The museum has a Space Science Hall, which is home to the Kendall Planetarium. Here, there’s an opportunity to attend one of the Starry Night events, where professionals guide visitors in viewing the night sky through a telescope, pointing out constellations, planets and satellites.

There’s also a chance to step inside the Blueback, a genuine submarine. The Earth Lab hosts a variety of interactive activities to learn about Earth science, like creating a river, understanding climate change or seeing the process of salmon becoming smolt.

The Portland Art Museum is another museum worth checking out. It’s the seventh oldest museum in the United States and is internationally recognized. This museum preserves art collections for the sake of knowledge and in creating voices and spaces to support Portland artists. It has positively contributed particularly to Black communities in Portland. One of their exhibits, “APEX: Sharita Towne & A Black Art Ecology of Portland,” has taken the initiative of bringing together Black voices and creations, displaying murals, videos and even hosting a comedy show.

“Mesh” is an exhibit in the museum featuring four new artists whose work revolves around activism. It consists of a variety of artistic mediums like photography, sculpture and paintings, focusing on Native American culture and traditions as well as racial injustice.

BOISE, Idaho

The Idaho State Museum in Boise is interested in exploring individual experiences and how Idaho’s diverse landscapes connect and shape the identities of the people who live within them. They offer great educational programs for the wider community, like camps and field trips for students, or the well-known National History Day, where students are encouraged, over the course of their school year, to do their own research that concludes in competitions on the local, state or national level.

As part of the Idaho State Historical Society, there is a vast variety of exhibits to see that offer a glimpse into Idaho’s history, such as visiting the Old Idaho Penitentiary where visitors can discover everything there is to know about its architecture and creation, along with its former residents and their experiences.

One of the museum’s permanent exhibits is “Idaho: The Land and its People,” which delves into Idaho’s natural and industrial history, interactively exploring its prominent mining history, its bodies of water and mountainous landscapes, the Oregon Trail and even what Idaho’s skiing is like.

The Boise Art Museum works to demonstrate what art can teach us, and how important art can be in preserving history and memory. There’s a particular emphasis on understanding how individuals can connect and communicate through art. One of the ongoing exhibits is “Re-Framed: American Life, Legacy, and Ideals,” which honors the diversity of America and its integral role within our society. Numerous artists have contributed to this exhibit, presenting multiple perspectives focused on the personal and the communal, offering insight not only into how complex our diversified identities can be, but also how they connect us. 

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OTHER MUST-SEE MUSEUMS

  • National Nordic Museum, Seattle, nordicmuseum.org
  • Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, mohai.org
  • Museum of Flight, Seattle, museumofflight.org
  • Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, tacomaartmuseum.org
  • America’s Car Museum, Tacoma, americascarmuseum.org
  • Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Portland, ojmche.org
  • Oregon Historical Society Museum, Portland, ohs.org/museum
  • Idaho Black History Museum, Boise, ibhm.squarespace.com