The Columbia River Maritime Museum has never advertised the hidden treasure, let alone put it on display, but it is one of Deputy Director Dave Pearson’s favorites from the collection:
The broken hull plate from the infamous Exxon Valdez oil tanker that, in March 1989, struck the Bligh Reef and spilled millions of barrels of crude oil in Alaska — the worst oil spill in United States history until 2010.
The Salvage Chief, the marine salvage vessel that pulled the tanker from where it ran aground, brought the hunk of split steel to the museum shortly after the accident. Sitting next to it on the pallet shelf in the collection storage facility is a bottle of the original oil.
“That will make a great exhibit someday,” Pearson said.
As in most museums, the space in the Maritime Museum is limited and the collection vast, so the materials that visitors see represent a small fraction of what the institution actually possesses.
“By our very nature, we’re collecting more than we could ever put on exhibit,” he said.
The museum currently features the floating lightship Columbia, flags that Japanese soldiers took with them into battle during World War II, two cannons found in Arch Cape that came from an 1846 shipwreck, exhibits about the U.S. Coast Guard and Columbia River Bar, a photo gallery by local photographer Michael Mathers and other draws.
But the off-site artifacts — which can be loaned to other museums or viewed by researchers — are often as compelling as the ones presented to the public.
The museum storehouse holds tens of thousands of miscellaneous maritime objects from the Lower Columbia River and the wider Pacific Northwest:
Harpoons, anchors, spent artillery shells, flat-bottom race boats, scraps of wood from shipwrecks, hardware from World Wars I and II destroyers, boat engines of many makes and models.
Some items are so abundant — like octants, sextants and compasses — that the museum has stopped collecting them.
Others are one-of-a-kind pieces, including the bell from the USS Astoria and an alcohol bar from the USS Oregon, which have both been on display.
Row upon row of boxes contain objects yet to be sorted and shelved, such as flags, chart maps, port lights, gillnet fishing equipment and untold reams of historical documents.
“It can take years to get caught up on a collection of this size,” Pearson said.
In a nearby boat haul, the museum keeps dozens of antique watercraft built and used throughout the region; the oldest is an authentic Native American dugout made circa 1895.
The museum has been collecting for more than 50 years, so many of the objects that were newish when acquired have become antiques.
This is especially true of marine electronics, which become outdated fairly quickly. The museum has several specimens of LORAN (long-range navigation) equipment, a form of pre-GPS navigation.
Part of the challenge of curating a museum is to make the most of the objects available.
This involves using “targeted” pieces, the ones that tell the fullest story of the Columbia River and its place in Pacific Northwest maritime history.
A fresnel lens from a North Coast lighthouse, for example, is a great find. But a lens that actually saved sailors on the Columbia River over many decades, and that figures into many maritime stories, is ideal.
Matthew Palmgren, the museum collections manager, said that being able to personally interact with history every day is probably the best part of his job.
“To see and feel and — of course, through a linen glove — to touch history, in a safe way,” he said, “that’s a big perk.”
Pearson added, “You can study history and learn it, but then to actually see the objects — connecting with (those) really brings it to life.”