Humboldt County’s Clarke Museum
● By Jon Lewis
By Jon Lewis
Photo courtesy of Clarke Historical Museum
THERE ARE SOME 139,000 acres of redwood forests, pristine coastline, cultural resources and grassland prairies protected within the Redwood National and State Parks complex. It’s a big swath of Humboldt County history and it remains contentious 50 years after the park was established.
All of which makes it the ideal focus for a new exhibit at the Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka. “It’s an enormous topic,” says Ben Brown, the Clarke’s executive director, “and it’s one that is still controversial.” “Redwoods Provide(d),” which opens July 7, will look at the two sides that fought for and against creating the Redwood National Park.
“Reasons to support or oppose the park changed over the course of the decades-long debate surrounding the park’s establishment, and our exhibit strives to illuminate some of those reasonings,” Brown says.
The exhibit is in keeping with the Clarke’s 58 years as a historical and cultural hub in Eureka and its mission of preserving and presenting the region’s history and “providing a safe place where ideas and knowledge are shared and where we honor and learn from previous generations, helping to teach today’s youth as they become tomorrow’s leaders. At our core, the Clarke is an educational facility dedicated to fostering lifelong learning opportunities for all ages,” Brown says.
Brown served as an intern at the museum years before he started work there in 2008 as the part-time curator of the museum’s Native American section while also working with the Wiyot and Karuk tribes. He was promoted to museum director in 2012. He notes with pride that with a collection of more than 120,000 items, the Clarke is the only museum in the area that covers the Humboldt region’s entire history, including Native American culture, the Gold Rush, the “red gold” of the redwood lumber industry, the livelihoods created from the sea, the railroad and farming.
“Our motto is ‘history is for everyone.’ Accessibility and inclusivity are pillars of our mission to serve the community,” Brown says.
Serving the community was clearly on the mind of Cecile Clarke, the late Eureka High School history teacher who sold the family’s sheep ranch and used the proceeds to purchase the old Bank of Eureka building and establish the museum in 1960. Clarke, who taught for 40 years, originally named the museum the Clarke Memorial Museum to honor her parents. It was renamed in 2001 and is now a privately operated non-profit organization.
The bank, which opened in 1912, is an impressive example of a Classical Revival building. It was designed by Albert Pissis, a French-born architect who introduced the Beaux-Arts style to San Francisco and points north. It’s a beautiful building, and the museum’s most important artifact, but Brown says its upkeep needs, including repairs to the glazed terra-cotta exterior, present the museum with financial challenges.
Just as the building speaks to Eureka’s colorful past, so do the museum’s exhibits. A vast collection of Native American basketry, a detailed and extensive firearm collection and an impressive gathering of textiles, including more than five dozen quilts, all tell a story connected to Eureka’s history and culture.
The region’s Native American history, which dates back thousands of years, is well represented at the Clarke with exhibits focusing on the Wiyot, Yurok, Karuk and Hupa tribes and the cultural and artistic traits that both connect and distinguish them. Basketry, ceremonial dresses, jewelry, beads, photographs, tools, weapons, smoking pipes and more are on display in the Nealis Hall wing of the museum.
The Victorian era, reflected in Old Town Eureka’s architecture and the styles and fashions favored in the mid-19th century—and funded primarily by fleets of schooners that brought redwood lumber to San Francisco and returned with cash for timber barons like William Carson—is represented in the Clarke Museum.
Brown takes justified pride in the artwork in the museum’s collection, including works by Cora Wright, considered one of the Humboldt region’s premier painters. An exhibit of her work, timed to mark her 150th birthday, will be on display this winter. “The Clarke Museum is lucky to have about two dozen of her pieces. Her work includes still-lifes as well as landscapes of the redwoods and the Klamath River area,” Brown says.
The director says one of his favorite pieces is of Humboldt Bay from 1876 that was painted by Max Stocker. “It’s based on a sketch by a soldier stationed at Fort Humboldt in 1854 and shows how settlement had to be carved out of the woods, which initially went all the way to the bay. As Eureka grew, the forest receded to make room. The painting illustrates how small Eureka once was.”
Eureka is much bigger these days, and to help share its myriad resources, the Clarke Museum welcomed the Eureka Visitors Center into its lobby last October. Alanna Powell, director of Humboldt Made, the organization that operates the visitor center, says the collaboration makes it easier to showcase Eureka as a destination in its own right and its role as “the base camp for your redwood adventure.”
“By combining these two organizations under one roof, we’re able to create a unique experience for visitors to this area, where professional concierges answer their questions on the best places to eat, stay and shop and directing them to all the incredible places and events this area offers, while grounding them in the history and culture of the area. By being located in Old Town Eureka, visitors are introduced to the best Eureka has to offer,” Brown says. •