Arts & Culture

A lot of Gig Harbor history packed in one museum room

A Willits canoe is part of the exhibit “Arts and Artifacts” at the Harbor History Museum.
A Willits canoe is part of the exhibit “Arts and Artifacts” at the Harbor History Museum.

How do you fit two 17-foot boats, an art exhibit and an entire book into a museum gallery?

No, that’s not the start of a joke. It’s a new exhibit at the Harbor History Museum that delves into the history of Gig Harbor from Native Americans to the 1950s with a near-overload of information, artifacts and landscape paintings by the Peninsula Art League. In short, “Arts and Artifacts: An Excellent Little Bay” does local history with a level of detail that will either fascinate or overwhelm you.

The structure is solid enough — the 2004 potted history “An Excellent Little Bay,” written by museum volunteer J.A. Eckrom. The gallery loosely follows the narrative of the book clockwise around the walls, from a corner on Native Americans (historic photos, woven baskets by Anna Squally) past the 1841 arrival of Europeans, the migration of Slavonians, Croatians and Norwegians, the early 1900s, the two World Wars and the early 1950s.

Some of the artifacts are beautiful: a Willits canoe of polished red cedar, and parallel to it a 100-year-old Whitehall, the Cadillac of rowboats. With its red trim and gray boards, the rowboat is still used for fishing by Nate Slater, museum shipwright. There’s a store coffee grinder from the 1800s, with 20-inch wheels to turn the blades; a 1900s Edison phonograph with shiny black bell; a 1938 Corona typewriter and a slightly later Underwood that folks can type on; a beautiful 1936 standing radio and a 1948 TV with big dials and brown veneer.

Yet the exhibit’s hard to take in, and part of the problem is the chronology: There are (confusingly) 1940s dresses standing by the phonograph, a 1911 handmade wedding dress among the World War I information, and random modern items such as posters and fake fruit tucked in between historical artifacts.

But the biggest problem is the information overload. Curator Joanne Hale has gone to huge lengths, printing sheet after sheet of world history timelines, U.S. presidential context, pie charts, biographies, explanations and more. It’s impossible to read all these in under two hours. And they’re crammed cheek-by-jowl on the walls with historic photos and recent plein-air landscape paintings by the Peninsula Art League that, while brightening up the endless black-and-white, just add to the visual overload.

It’s a pity, because this is a bay with a fun history. Certainly locals will have more patience sifting through to find well-known landmarks and famous families whose names now adorn street signs. And there’s a children’s corner, with dress-up photo op and guess-the-scent boxes. But for the rest of us, a bit more editing would have made this an excellent little exhibit.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Arts and Artifacts: An Excellent Little Bay

Where: Harbor History Museum, 4121 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 19. Curator talk, Dec. 1; live blacksmithing, Feb. 11.

Cost: $7 adult; $6 senior, military, student; $5 ages 6-17; free 5 and younger.

Information: 253-858-6722,