New Life for Regional Museums

In the ten years after the 2015 Seattle Fault earthquake, many opportunities arose to reinvigorate or reinvent the arts and culture scene in King County as a result of regional planning before the disaster. One such opportunity was the creation of a regional museum system in collaboration with leading regional cities, such as Redmond and Bellevue.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

These cities and others serve as facilitators of these museums, whereas a bottom-up structure of facility governance and maintenance is emphasized.

This new system is now a nexus for diverse communities across the tri-county region. It facilitates greater and better ways for cross-cultural interaction and learning than before the disaster. These museums were also designed, in consultation with local emergency management agencies, to serve as region-wide community response and recovery centers in case of future disasters.

 Ten years since the Seattle Fault earthquake, regional museums have been organized under the Puget Sound Museum and Cultural Affairs Council. This agency, known as PSMCAC, is funded by the governments of county and regional cities, as well as The Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and member donations.

PSMCAC also receives a small amount of budget allocations from King County in order to operate, in the purpose of managing its entire network of museums throughout the region. The organization provides critical cultural and social support services for the citizens of these counties and visitors outside the region.

“In developing this regional council, we had a mission to integrate both cultural and community gathering facilities of King County and the region under one umbrella in a multi-purpose fashion” says Maria Del Soledad, former Seattle area elected official.

In creating PSMCAC, significant time and attention was devoted to examining the shared cultural, social, and political needs of our region. This created incentives and opportunities for museums to serve as community gathering centers not only for the sole purpose of community programs and development, but also in case a disaster strikes King County and the region.

One such example is the Renton History Museum. It also serves as a community emergency center in the event of another disaster. As with many other museums in PSMCAC’s purview, multi-lingual programs are offered to teach the shared experiences of King County’s history and experiences of the Seattle Fault Earthquake.

Similarly, the Issaquah Depot Museum in the City of Issaquah. This museum has a multi-purpose vision: it is a place where Issaquah’s long history as a critical transportation center is on display, as well as serving as a community-gathering center in case of a future extreme event. In addition, the museum serves as the region’s showcase of planned infrastructure projects, such as the massively expanded Sound Transit system.

Also serving as a citizen safe-house in the event of an earthquake, this facility was equipped with a number of seismic retrofits. This includes resistant shear walls, base isolators, and a slosh tank. Emergency medical supplies, food, water, and sleeping bags are also stored within the museum.

“It is wonderful that this museum and others in the region have been repurposed for cultural exhibition and community cohesion in case of another disaster” says Ron Kinkle, an Issaquah resident.

PSMCAC looked for opportunities to combine cultural rehabilitation and memorialization of the disaster. There are many instances where King County and PSMCAC encouraged the arts community to help pay tribute to the social resilience of area residents. The council facilitated the painting of the partially damaged towers of Seattle’s Gasworks Park with likenesses of area earthquake survivors and victims. Residents were also encouraged to write stories on the installation to remember their loved ones.

A major goal for PSCAC was to engage low-income, ethnic, and immigrant communities and improve their access to cultural facilities. One outcome of this was the Greater Kent Historical Society and Museum, which offers all exhibits in Spanish and Mandarin to accommodate Kent’s growing and diversifying population. Another strategy for meeting this goal was the decision to make access to all museums and cultural institutions affiliated with PSMCAC free of charge.

“Making museums free and truly open to the public provides access for a more diverse population to connect to the region’s shared history, culture, and values” says Leonard Markstein, deputy Executive Director of PSMCAC.

PSMCAC’s governing strategy is encouraging museums under its purview to exercise a fair degree of autonomy. A critical aspect of this is fostering positive community relations in the neighborhoods that the museums call home. At its heart is encouraging diversity among its membership rolls, in the effort to facilitate and expose immigrants to the region’s culture and shared history. Also, it is the responsibility of museums to create their own exhibitions and community programs as they see fit.

Regardless of how someone was affected by the 2014 Seattle Fault earthquake, one can imagine the dizzying amount of obstacles in establishing a framework for cultural rehabilitation in its aftermath. Due to the massive amount of infrastructural and ecological damage inflicted upon the area, the number one priority was the rehabilitation of King County’s transportation system in the short term.

Even though rehabilitation of cultural facilities would seem to be a low priority for disaster recovery, local government realized the importance of the issue during planning before the earthquake hit. Leaders saw possibilities to link both cultural and emergency management goals and infrastructure. The sheer size of infrastructure vulnerabilities in King County and the planning needs for post-earthquake infrastructure for the region begged the question: should the recovery of cultural facilities and institutions be a planning priority? Many local politicians, including several mayors, thought the answer to this question was a resounding yes.

“Arts and culture are not the number one recovery priority, however, in planning before the earthquake we realized it should be among our priorities,” remarked Mayor E. Prescott La Montoya at the time.

A serious obstacle for such an unexpected priority was lack of sufficient funding for preservation and rehabilitation of cultural facilities and landmarks. After initial roadblocks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other partnering federal agencies determined they could help by increasing funding for infrastructure reconstruction. This allowed King County and other jurisdictions in the area to free up funding for cultural rehabilitation.

One of the most challenging cultural tradeoffs of historical preservation is whether to replace or renovate hundreds of damaged historic structures. King County has taken a facilitative role. For example, they helped to untangle the web of regulations that the King County Landmarks Commission (KCLC) enacted over its thirty-year history. Because these conversations started before the earthquake, KCLC were eventually able to agree on what regulations could be waived and which could be expedited.

As a result of their new found partnership, KCLC and PSMCAC worked in unison with municipal agencies, such as Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, to help owners of landmark buildings find resources to renovate their properties.

As with any rebuilding or revitalization effort, a number of different players need to be involved at the federal, state, and local level during the process. With this in mind, the King County Council convened several meetings to facilitate a public discussion about their interests and any potential issues with respect to PSMCAC’s cultural rehabilitation program. These public meetings paved the way for unprecedented inclusion of community members’ ideas and needs for post-disaster culture and arts projects and initiatives.

It is often an issue to secure resources for owners of historic buildings in the wake of a devastating disaster, such as the Seattle Fault earthquake. However, PSMCAC and King County had already built a wide network of public and private entities to draw resources from. One such resource was the Smithsonian Institution Grant Program. PSMCAC teamed up with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to leverage volunteer resources from AIA members.

Volunteers took inventory of historic buildings within King County to assess the possibility for rehabilitation in lieu with new seismic building codes. They also worked with U.S. Green Building Council to provide technical resources for green rebuilding.  Yet another resource King County and PSMCAC drew upon was the federal rehabilitation tax credit, which allows owners of historic structures to receive a large tax credit against the total cost of rehabilitation.

In the past couple of years, many PSMCAC member facilities have showcased people’s experiences of the 2015 Seattle Fault earthquake. In doing so, it was hoped that this would strengthen the bonds between people who have endured extreme physical, mental, and social stress and loss because of the earthquake.

Highlighting their experiences has strengthened survivor’s resiliency in the face of a possible future disaster event. In PSMCAC’s formation, it was hoped that its mission would evolve into an organization that facilitates and expedites cultural and social resiliency. It is on the path to do so.