Renovated Karshner Center in Puyallup is still a museum for students — and more

From the sidewalk on Fourth Street Northeast in Puyallup, the brick building formerly known as the Paul H. Karshner Museum looks the same as it did before it closed for much of the last two years.

But on the inside, the newly renovated Karshner Museum and Center for Culture & Arts boasts a shiny interior with a fresh focus on arts and cultural education.

The Karshner Center will re-open to the public Sept. 3, the first day of classes in Puyallup.

Puyallup School District spokesman Brian Fox said the makeover is more than aesthetic.

“We want to make sure it is tied to curriculum,” he said during a tour earlier this month.

A Tacoma company, BLRB Architects, won the $820,000 bid to remodel the museum.

It’s unusual for a school district to own and operate a museum, but the Karshner has a long tradition in Puyallup. Generations of local school children have taken field trips there to see the Indian baskets, fossils, mounted animals (including a famously smelly elephant’s foot) and trunks full of trinkets.

The museum opened in the 1930s, after Dr. Warner Karshner and wife, Ella, donated items they collected in their world travels. They dedicated it to the memory of their son, Paul, who died of polio his senior year at Puyallup High School.

Now the museum will hold the old displays as well as new ones, including a collection of artifacts from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and other local natives.

Karshner has been closed since fall 2013, and much of the previous year, too.

The closure allowed for a renovation of the facility and the exhibits to better incorporate new educational curriculum. The updated building has one modern classroom and an old one that was left mostly untouched. Fox said the new room will be home to a weaving project for students, typical of the center’s hands-on learning focus.

The purpose, he said, is for students to interact with the artifacts beyond “nose prints on the display cases.”

Gallery spaces are filled with 10 new display cases, which were constructed from repurposed wood and the museum’s original slate chalkboards. The displays will have QR codes — barcodes that can be scanned using electronic devices — so students can download information on the center’s newly purchased tablets. Later, students can use special software to access the information at home or in their classrooms.

“This is a research experience,” Fox said.

New track lighting illuminates the displays, and a large skylight pours natural light into the main gallery. The carpet is gone, revealing the building’s original maple wood floors.

The main gallery space — which will be available for meetings, conferences, performances and other events — has six flatscreen TVs and a large projector screen for airing educational films and segments. Fox said the space can fit about 200 chairs.

The gallery also will have rotating displays, thanks to a new partnership with the Washington Secretary of State’s office. Various exhibits that originate at the Olympia-based Washington State Heritage Center eventually will take a turn at the Karshner Center. The one displayed now features famous women in Washington state politics.

During a tour earlier this month, the mostly-untouched archive room was filled with more than 10,000 artifacts from around the world. Seattle-based consultant ESA Paragon is completing an inventory on all the items, some said to be worth tens of thousands of dollars. The company will place a new value on the collection, which Fox said was worth a million dollars several years ago.

The work is scheduled to be finished in the 2014-2015 school year.

“As keepers of this collection, we wanted to be good stewards,” Fox said.

Karshner is at 309 Fourth St. NE, in the old Stewart Elementary building.

Some critics were worried last year when the school district made public its plans to reinvent the museum. They feared a watered-down version of the Karshner legacy.

Fox said the criticism was the result of misinformation. Museum staff responded with public outreach and a transition committee that met monthly.

The effort to transform Karshner started several years ago, and the idea was born about a decade ago.

Casey Cox, assistant school district superintendent, started thinking of ways to fuse culture and the arts into the museum. He compiled a list of ideas, with the help of others.

“I had this grand model in this little notebook,” he said. “They took scribblings on paper and made it a reality.”

Cox said that Dr. Karshner’s writings encouraged tolerance and learning about other cultures — a lesson he said all students in the Puyallup district should embrace.

That cultural respect is epitomized by a partnership with the Samish Indian Nation. In 2012, the district signed an agreement with the Anacortes-based tribe, agreeing to return 37 Karshner artifacts that had cultural significance for the Samish people. In exchange, the tribe agreed to provide the museum with contemporary objects created by tribal members.

A hand-painted panel will be displayed during the Coastal Salish exhibit that opens in February, and other items will be prominently displayed.

As a whole, Fox said the improved Karshner Center will help students learn about other cultures in a more explicit way than before. They will be challenged to analyze artifacts as they would a piece of literature, he said.

“Students need to know there is a world beyond Puyallup,” he said. “It will cause kids to stop and use their brains in a different way.”