Thrilling visitors for 60 years, the Columbia River Maritime Museum defies any notions of “old, stuffy history.”
“It’s real; it’s tangible; it’s huge; and it’s interactive,” says Caroline Wuebben, the museum’s marketing manager. “It’s not a bunch of pictures on the wall.”
The Astoria museum’s pride and joy is a 128-foot lightship recently refurbished to bring aspects of its operation into public view for the first time since 1979. Stationed for nearly 30 years at the mouth of the Columbia River, the lightship — essentially a floating lighthouse — now is a beloved museum fixture, beckoning some visitors interested exclusively in the decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel.
“Some people come to the museum just for the lightship,” says Wuebben. “It is our largest exhibit.”
The museum’s massive restoration project entailed towing the lightship to Portland, where it reposed in drydock for cleaning, sandblasting, repairing and repainting, says Wuebben. The ship’s engine and radio rooms also received a facelift in preparation for welcoming visitors inside, she says. A new gangway fabricated specifically for the lightship and its berth at the city docks replaces one that was unsafe in high tides or inclement weather, which previously closed public access to the lightship, says Wuebben. The addition of spudwells, she adds, ensures the lightship is better stabilized while visitors are aboard.
The Lightship was reunited with a restored navigation buoy that also guided mariners at the river’s mouth when it made its triumphant return to the museum in June. The duo long presided over the treacherous entrance to the Columbia River Bar, nicknamed the “graveyard of the Pacific.”
“It’s the most dangerous bar crossing on the planet,” says Wuebben.
“Crossing the Bar: Perilous Passage” is among the exhibits that both captivate and educate museum goers. The interactive “Science of Storms” exhibit illustrates the challenges of predicting the weather as visitors use infrared technology and try their hands at giving a weather forecast, an exercise Wuebben describes as “really fun to watch.” Also interactive, a large map in the museum lobby lights up locations of the area’s historical shipwrecks — approximately 2,000 since 1792, including 200 large ships.
Moving beyond historical accounts, the Museum’s newest exhibit, “Shipwrecks”, assigns modern day context to the topic, says Wuebben. “They affect the supply chain,” she says. “They’re metal and steel, and there’s chemicals — fuel and oil.”
Environmental consequences, says Wuebben, are among the lessons learned from shipwrecks, arising from numerous causes cited in the exhibit. Museum goers also will explore new methods that maritime archaeologists use to probe these remote sites and uncover more about maritime past. Shipwreck artifacts help to anchor the exhibit.
“They aren’t something that happened hundreds of years ago,” says Wuebben. “They’re still happening today.”
Hundreds of years of mapping history is chronicled in one of Wuebben’s favorite exhibits. “Mapping the Pacific Coast: Coronado to Lewis and Clark” merges fact and fantasy, reimagines California as an island, reveals Russian secrets and charts the voyages of Captain Cook, as well as overland expeditions across North America.
“It’s not the most sexy, exciting part of the museum,” says Wuebben. “But it’s fascinating.”
Containing authentic, original documents — some nearly 500 years old — the physical and digital displays are available at the museum and on its website, respectively. After eight years of traveling the country’s circuit of maritime, art and history museums, the exhibit retired to Astoria, a gift from private collectors Henry and Holly Wendt.
“The main hall has full-size boats in it — it’s the real thing. Visitors are impressed; they’re surprised,” says Wuebben. “People are just super appreciative.”
Donations, planned giving and memberships — from $45 to $1,000 annually — help steer the museum’s finances. Most members hail from Oregon’s Clatsop and Washington’s Pacific counties, or within a 100-mile radius, says Wuebben. But more than 100,000 annual museum visitors of diverse demographics, she says, find “something for everybody” — indoors and outdoors — whether it’s plaques for patient readers or hands-on activities for kids.
The museum offers a wide range of educational opportunities for all ages. Museum educators lead school-aged youth through learning labs and MITs (Museums in the School) that align with state education standards, adults through hands on learning and creating, and through informal seasonal offerings during museum hours of operation.
Appreciate all the Columbia River Maritime Museum offers by navigating to its website, crmm.org and planning your trip.