Long-time Educator, Mary Jo Maute, Retires After 21 Years

For 21 years, Mary Jo Maute taught the history of the Northwest Coast people to thousands of Whatcom County children, brought art to families experiencing homelessness, inspired high school students, and taught adults painting and art techniques through various workshops. Last month, Maute, an education and program coordinator at the Museum, retired from her position, but her legacy will remain. Before leaving, Maute reflected on her time and experiences at the Museum.

Q&A with Mary Jo Maute

How long have you worked at the Whatcom Museum, and what role(s) have you had?
Twenty one years ago, we moved to Bellingham from Montana, where I had served as the Curator of Education at the Yellowstone Art Museum. We were drawn here for this job at the Museum.

Mary Jo Maute teaches an ArtFUNdamental program to elementary school children.

My role has been planning and presenting programs that relate to the permanent and special exhibitions, most often working with school groups to enhance the school curriculum. The school program that has kept me the busiest since day one is the People of the Sea and Cedar tour and workshop. Pretty much every 3rd grader in Whatcom County and many from Skagit, Snohomish, and Island Counties benefit from this program. One would think that running this remarkable program for 21 years would become tiring, but I love working with children and everyone has a good time.

I’ve also coordinated a variety of public programs, including talks by artists, curators, and historians, Family Activity Days (now Community Art Museum Day), Brown Bag lunch programs, Artful Pairings (opportunities for adults to get creative and learn interesting techniques while sipping wine), and concerts, which provide the community with opportunities to engage with our local arts and culture.

“I can say with certainty that Mary Jo is a beloved art teacher, a well-respected colleague and friend of this community!” –Susanna Brooks, Whatcom Museum Director of Learning Innovation

This past spring marked the 20th anniversary of the high school Art Career Day, a special project of mine. Art Career Day builds the next generation of artists, educators, and lifelong creative learners. This conference brings together 130 Whatcom County high school students and their art teachers for a day at the museum meeting with regional artists and college art department representatives.

I’ve also been the education department’s liaison with the museum intern program through Western Washington University’s (WWU) Anthropology Department.  It’s been a real joy to give college students a taste of what it’s like to work in a museum and engage with school groups and the public.

What has been one of your favorite programs offered at the Museum?
I like most when I can use the exhibitions as a springboard for a creative collaborative project. A few examples are:

  • Kuntz and Company dance inside the Lightcatcher gallery featuring Leslie Dill’s installation, 2012.

    Partnering with Pam Kuntz, WWU Dance faculty and artistic director of Kuntz and Company during the Leslie Dill installation in 2012. Together we explored the idea of creating a dance performance in the gallery. There were many fascinating rehearsals as the site-specific dance was choreographed. The result was two sold out, spine-tingling performances with an original score and outstanding cast of student and community dancers.

  • Being part of the Vanishing Ice exhibition planning team with our Curator of Art, Barbara Matilsky, and educator, Chris Brewer, as well as numerous community organizations who offered an array of programs on art and science all helping to expand awareness of climate change during the Vanishing Ice exhibition in 2012-13. I invited WWU fiber arts professor Seiko Purdue to come up with a project. The result was a beautiful display of hand-dyed bibs with heart-felt messages that fluttered on the courtyard wall during the exhibition.
  • Make.Shift Art Space provided a venue for regional artists to riff off a theme from a few Whatcom Museum exhibits. I thought it would be cool to invite artists to create a unique piece inspired by work from the Museum’s photo archive collection. Jessyca Murphy at Make.Shift agreed and the result was the juried exhibition Making History: Art from the Archive. Many artists enjoyed the challenge and had a great time perusing the photo collection with Jeff Jewell.

How has the education program changed through the years at the Museum?

Hand-dyed bibs with heart-felt messages fluttered on the courtyard wall during the “Vanishing Ice” exhibition in 2013.

The new People of the Sea and Cedar exhibition is an excellent example of how educators and community members can support exhibition planning and design to make the museum experience accessible to all ages, backgrounds, and learning styles. With thanks to Lummi and Nooksack elders, the exhibit includes language interactives and videos showcasing Lummi and Nooksack weavers and carvers, and it presents the tribes as vibrant, living cultures.

Visual literacy and creativity are 21st century skills that have changed through time. Museum educators must engage young people in activities that empower them to respond in their own way to the art and artifacts they find in the galleries.

Could you guesstimate how many Whatcom County school children you’ve interacted with through the years?
More than 100,000 students, parents, and teachers from every corner of Whatcom County and beyond.

Mary Jo Maute talks about birds with local elementary school students in the Syre Education Center.

What will you miss most about working at the Museum?
I will miss delving into new exhibitions and developing programs for school kids and adults that teach art skills, visual literacy, and instill the pleasure and excitement of learning in a museum setting. It feels good to know you’ve ignited a spark in some young person that might set them on a lifelong journey as an artist, historian, bird-lover, or culture vulture. I’ll miss working as a team with the education, curatorial, marketing, development, and information attendants to plan cool programs and welcome the community into this wonderful, warm, inspiring place of lifelong learning.

“Interning for Mary Jo gave me a chance to gain skills in building avenues for young people to experience art and culture. Mary Jo has a talent for creating opportunities for people to connect with art on a uniquely personal level.” –Lily Dittrich, former Museum intern

Do you have a favorite story about a visitor or student?
Occasionally a teacher will share, “While you were teaching, I observed a child who has shown little interest in school and has rarely raised their hand. During this experience, I see them thrive.” I know the meaning of that experience. That spark was ignited for me when I first visited the Albright Knox Art Gallery and had an AHA! moment looking at Seurat’s Etude pour “Le Chahut,” with its distinct dabs of oil color creating form and emanating light energy. These moments are why I am here today.

Mary Jo Maute (center) with her daughter, Iris Maute-Gibson (left) and retired Museum educator Chris Brewer (right). They are in costume for the Museum’s Victorian Secrets program in 2013. Photo by Roger Dollarhide.

What do you look forward to in retirement?
I look forward to traveling, auditing classes in other subjects of interest, working out at the YMCA, walking the many community trails, and volunteering for community nonprofits. I also look forward to continuing my professional arts career.

Would you like to add any other thoughts or comments?
I feel so fortunate to have found a career that weaves together several of my passions, as art, museums are a place of lifelong learning, and enrich the lives of our youth and community. After 28 years in the museum education field, it is time to pass the torch on to the next generation of educators. I cherish the friends that I have made at the Whatcom Museum including fellow staff, volunteers, interns, teachers, artists, musicians, history buffs, and bird-lovers.

The History of Old City Hall

Reaching into the sky with its four spires and clock tower, Old City Hall is one of Bellingham’s most iconic landmarks. Most have seen the building and many have been inside during a visit to the Whatcom Museum. But fewer people know the history behind it — and the many secrets it holds.

History of Old City Hall

Interior of Comptroller’s Office, c. 1913 Photographer Unknown: Whatcom Museum #1988.16.19

The story of Old City Hall starts more than 100 years ago. Prior to 1891, the New Whatcom City Council had been housed in the Oakland Block at the corner of Champion and Holly streets. The City Council shared space with a clothing store, a music dealer and a hotel.

However, as the government grew, it became evident that the City Council needed something bigger. They asked local architects to submit plans for a new city hall. In November, the council accepted a design from local architect Alfred Lee.

Lee, a self-taught architect, pulled the designs for the late-Victorian building from various catalogues and combined different plans together.

The beginning

The council purchased a plot of land on a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bluff for $5,000. Construction started in February 1892. Construction wrapped up quickly when an economic depression in 1893 caused funds for the project to disappear, leaving the second and third floor interiors unfinished.

One side effect caused by this abrupt stop was that the clock faces that had been installed didn’t actually work. Instead, the city moved the hands on the clock to permanently read seven o’clock. These didn’t last long, however, as strong winds eventually knocked out the clock faces. The city, not having the funds to replace them, simply left them as gaping holes.

The city did install a large, three-feet-in-diameter bell in the tower, which was rung to alert the volunteer fire department whenever there was a fire in the city. The height of the building made it easy to see any fires in the area.

City Hall is finished

As money slowly trickled in, construction continued on the building. The second and third floors’ interiors were finished in 1910. In total, the entire project costed $50,000 (about 1.3 million dollars today). City Council and other city employees slowly began to occupy the various rooms in the building. Today, visitors to Old City Hall can see where these officials worked by looking at the small black text panels that are next to select doors.

Charred tower, 1962: Photo by Galen Biery, Whatcom Museum #1996.10.2245

When New Whatcom and Fairhaven combined to form one town on Bellingham Bay in 1904, the New Whatcom City Hall on Prospect Street became the city hall for Bellingham. It continued to serve as city hall until the local departments physically outgrew the space. A newer, larger, and more modern city hall was built on Lottie Street in 1939, which still serves as Bellingham’s city hall.

Old City Hall sat empty for most of the 1939. There were calls from city councilmen to demolish the building. But the building was saved in November of that year when a group of volunteers led by John M. Edson established the Bellingham Public Museum Society and committed to occupy the building under a five-year lease. The museum officially opened on January 23, 1941.

The Museum

In 1962 a fire caused by faulty wiring ran through the top section of the building and left the main tower and much of the roof a charred frame of what it once was. Many thought that the building would be closed for good as it was no longer suitable for exhibition. A 12-year fundraising drive commenced.

Blueprints for the clock tower portion of the building no longer existed, so builders had to use photographs and sketches to recreate that section of the building. In 1974 the museum was finally reopened to the public. A bedsheet with the words “We Did It” was raised on the flag pole at the top of the tower.

Rebuilding tower, 1974: Photo by Galen Biery, Whatcom Museum #1985.70.8 b

Remnants of the history of Old City Hall can still be seen today. In the basement of the building, which used to serve as the city’s police station, the remains of jail bars over some doors and a padded jail cell can still be seen.

In the first floor photo gallery that is directly in front of the stairs, which used to be the city’s comptroller’s office, the outlines of what was once the comptroller’s vault can be faintly seen in the wall, covered by paint and a photograph. Behind the attendant’s desk, the remnants of the treasurer’s vault can be seen.

If you look up at the clock tower, there is a chance that the hands still read seven o’clock. The clock mechanism was never installed, so occasionally museum staff will climb up to the clock tower and move the hands.

Come discover the history of Old City Hall for yourself! Take a docent-led tour on Sunday afternoons at 12:30pm for more tales from the past.

–Written by Colton Redtfeldt, Marketing Assistant


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, March 19, 2018—The American Alliance of Museums has announced that the Whatcom Museum has earned reaccreditation by the Alliance’s Accreditation Commission. Only three percent of museums in the United States are accredited by the Alliance. Of the nation’s estimated 33,000 museums, 1,070 are currently accredited.

Through a rigorous process of self-assessment and review by industry peers, the Whatcom Museum has demonstrated it has met standards and best practices set by the Alliance, and shown itself to be a good steward of the collections and resources it holds in the public trust, as well as a core educational entity for the community and beyond.

“The Whatcom Museum was last reaccredited long before the construction of the Lightcatcher building, and many practices and policies were in need of being updated to today’s standards,” said Executive Director Patricia Leach. “We have been working for several years to prepare for this, and our professional staff and board have worked intensely in the past year to complete our self-study. So much work is invisible to the public, but what is evident is the result of that hard work in the many new permanent exhibitions at Old City Hall, as well as the ‘People of the Sea and Cedar’ exhibition in the Lightcatcher. It is both an honor and a relief that we have achieved this status.”

As the ultimate mark of distinction in the museum field, accreditation signifies excellence and credibility to the entire museum community, to governments and outside agencies, and to the museum-going public. Developed and sustained by museum professionals for more than 45 years, the museum accreditation program is the field’s primary vehicle for quality assurance, self-regulation, and public accountability. Accreditation helps to ensure the integrity and accessibility of museum collections, reinforce the educational and public service roles of museums, and promote good governance practices and ethical behavior.

“Accredited museums are a community of institutions that have chosen to hold themselves publicly accountable to excellence,” said Laura Lott, Alliance president and CEO. “Accreditation is clearly a significant achievement, of which both the institutions and the communities they serve can be extremely proud.”

To earn accreditation the Whatcom Museum submitted an extensive Self-Study and key operational documents for evaluation in 2017. Last November, a two-person team of peer reviewers conducted a site visit to further evaluate the Museum’s practices. The Accreditation Commission considered the results to determine whether the Whatcom Museum should receive reaccreditation, and the Commission just announced that the Museum has earned reaccreditation. The Whatcom Museum was last reaccredited by the Alliance in 2003.

About the American Alliance of Museums
The American Alliance of Museums has been bringing museums together since 1906, helping to develop standards and best practices, gathering and sharing knowledge, and providing advocacy on issues of concern to the entire museum community. Representing more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field, the Alliance stands for the broad scope of the museum community.  For more information, visit


DOCHFOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Bellingham, WA, November 1, 2016—This year marks the fourth year of the Whatcom Museum’s Deck the Old City Hall festivities. Running Wednesdays through Sundays, November 25 through December 31, 2016, the building will be decorated in garlands, wreaths, and sparkling lights, and will feature more than 20 themed, decorated trees. In addition to the festive decorations, the month-long program will feature visits with Santa, a pop-up shop, and a signature cocktail party to kick-off the holidays. Visitors can:

VISIT with Santa: Sat. & Sun., Nov. 26 & 27 and Sun., Dec. 4, 12:30 – 2:30 PM

 CELEBRATE at our signature cocktail party, sponsored by Scott and Lori Clough: Fri., Dec. 2, 5:30 – 8 PM. Guests will enjoy tasty appetizers and drinks, music, dancing, and beautifully decorated trees. Tickets are $50 and are available on beginning Nov. 1.

 SHOP the pop-up Museum Store, featuring seasonal and handmade gift items and decor.

 ENTER to win raffle prizes, including a completely decorated tree, ready to take home!

 Admission is by donation throughout this program. Proceeds help make Museum programs and exhibitions affordable for all. Deck the Old City Hall is sponsored by Northwest Honda, the Museum Advocates, and the Museum Foundation Board of Directors.


For Immediate Release: Bellingham, WA, Wednesday, July 13, 2016—The Whatcom Museum celebrates 75 years of bringing art, nature, and history to Bellingham with an open house celebration on Thursday, August 11, 2016. All three buildings on the Museum’s campus—the Lightcatcher Building, Old City Hall, and Syre Education Center—will be open, free of charge, noon-8pm. The celebration, sponsored by Peoples Bank, will include a variety of activities, including exhibition and building tours, art activities for adults and children, live music in the Lightcatcher and Old City Hall, a sidewalk chalk art contest, food trucks, cake, and more! Mayor Kelli Linville will make welcoming remarks at the Lightcatcher courtyard at 3pm. The Museum invites the community to celebrate its history, and welcome the next 75 years of community engagement together.

“The Whatcom Museum is proud to celebrate this milestone anniversary,” said Executive Director Patricia Leach. “We are committed to continuing the legacy of providing art and history to the community.”

The Museum will also highlight newly designed history exhibits in Old City Hall. Using items from the Museum’s collection and extensive photographic archives, these exhibits will tell the stories of Bellingham. Old City Hall will come alive through an orientation theater that will take visitors on an audio-visual journey spanning the building’s 124-year history, as well as the city’s early civic and political evolution. A new maritime history gallery featuring Bellingham’s waterfront will give an overview of Bellingham Bay’s history, from early steam ships, to fisheries, to notable schooners that sailed the bay.

“We’ve been working hard with a team of staff to prepare stories and items from our collection for these new history exhibits,” Leach said, “which we look forward to debuting at our celebration event.”

The Whatcom Museum began as a way of saving Bellingham’s vacant and decaying Old City Hall building, built in 1892. It first opened its doors as the Bellingham Public Museum on Jan. 23, 1941. The first exhibits consisted of historical items and curios on loan from community members. John M. Edson, the Museum’s founder, was an eminent ornithologist. The hundreds of taxidermy birds that Edson collected were part of the Museum’s original displays in 1941, which can still be seen today in the Syre Education Center.

Attendance that first year was 5,166, but the Museum had to close for most of the next two years due to a lack of funds during World War II. In 1944, a public vote made the Bellingham Public Museum a City department.

On December 10, 1962, an electrical fire in Old City Hall destroyed the clock tower and much of the roof. This led to a twelve-year effort to fully restore the museum building that was crowned by replacement of the tower in 1974.

Through the years, the Whatcom Museum has grown and evolved to meet the interests of a changing community. From the opening of the Lightcatcher building in 2009 to the ongoing expansion of collections and programs, the Museum has continued to provide innovative and interactive educational programs and exhibitions to the community.

More than 5,000 visitors signed the first museum guestbook in 1941. Now, 75 years and a few name changes later, the Whatcom Museum has grown into the cultural center of downtown Bellingham. Its iconic buildings, first-class exhibitions, extensive collection, and varied educational programs serve more than 70,000 people each year.

For more information about the Whatcom Museum’s 75th Anniversary Open House Celebration, including a schedule of events, visit

The Whatcom Museum’s three building campus includes the Lightcatcher Building, 250 Flora Street, Old City Hall, 121 Prospect Street, and the Syre Education Center, 201 Prospect Street. For additional information about the Museum’s hours, admission, membership, and offerings, visit