Photos line the walls: smiling faces of school children displayed on one, an old train rumbling through a shopping district on another. They are snapshots of how the city of Bellingham has evolved, freezing time to when the fashions were formal and the cars were ornate.
These photos, along with the hundreds of thousands of others, are part of the physical manifestation of Bellingham’s history housed throughout the Whatcom Museum Photo Archives. And Western senior Amber Johnson gets a front row ticket to them all.
Johnson is an anthropology student with an internship at the Whatcom Museum Photo Archives. Her job entails scanning and describing pictures community members bring in, and by doing this she helps archive historical images by putting them in the system.
“It’s gratifying knowing people are going to be able to find this stuff instead of it being locked away in a room someplace where no one will ever see. It’s putting the information out there,” Johnson said.
A normal day for Johnson includes documenting and cataloging pictures and archives into the City of Bellingham system. The purpose of all of this work in the Photo Archives Office is to preserve history, she said.
Working eight hours over three days a week, Johnson said she has begun to learn the ins and outs of archiving photos. She has become used to scanning everything from photos of Baker and Table Mountain to newspapers dating back to World War I and earlier.
The photos aren’t all taken from a vintage era, the most recent Johnson has seen come from the ‘70s and ‘80s; many of which are local class photos, bringing a large amount of the community to come in and reminisce, she said.
Being able to peruse the collection of old photos is like keeping tabs on who’s making up Bellingham, she said.
The photographs also span the rest of historical Bellingham, often offering an insight into what exactly the town looked like in its formative years. Johnson said that often she will walk around with a deeper knowledge of the old buildings that used to line the streets.
Johnson’s passions in life have swept from zoology to archaeology to thinking about a job as an art curator, and just recently has she settled on museology, the study and practice of curating, arranging and managing museums.
Western had just the class for Johnson. “Museology Studies” is a course revolving around the real-world experience of an internship through local museums, she said.
Johnson figured that if museums were where she wanted to end up, this class was going to help her get there. She ended up, quite by accident, in the Photo Archives.
After being forwarded around and asked point blank, “So you really want to be in the photo archives?” Johnson found herself being the new intern and under the guidance of supervisor and mentor, Jeff Jewell.
“[Jewell] is super passionate. He knows everything about Bellingham, so it’s really cool to feed off of that,” Johnson said.
Jewell is a Western alumnus and has worked for the Archives for 21 years as a Photo Archives Research Technician. His job has included supervising interns throughout his entire career with the Museum, he said.
“This database and what we do here wouldn’t be [without interns]. I rely on them,” Jewell said.
The Whatcom Museum is made up of four parts including the Photo Archives. Sharing the same building as the Archives is the Syre Education Center, which many school groups come to in order to learn about Bellingham’s history, Johnson said. The third part is the Lightcatcher Building, which is the art gallery component, she said.
Finally there is Old City Hall, a place Johnson has also had the opportunity to work with through the internship.
Johnson assists Jewell in putting together shows displayed in City Hall, Jewell said. They choose, clean and prepare photos to be shown as part of a cohesive show for the public.
After working together for about 5 weeks, Johnson has gained an appreciation for Jewell’s knowledge and has come to appreciate joking with him about their shared knowledge of Bellingham’s history.
Many facts surrounding the city’s old buildings and historic events are something the average Bellingham resident may not know about.
Johnson look at Jewell and says, “Which one?” In the Photo Archives main room, there’s a picture of where the old YMCA used to be. Now it’s a yoga place, but every time someone starts talking about the YMCA, And he thinks it’s funny because her mindset goes to the old vs. the new, she said. That photo was from the 1910s-1920s, Johnson said.
Her job gives her an inside look into Bellingham’s history. Her passion to learn about the city’s history is aided through the records that reveal endless amounts of information that she would otherwise not know, Johnson said.
Through the job she has learned that the true purpose of archiving these photos does not lie in instant gratification, Johnson said. Instead, it’s for those who come 20 years down the road, searching for the past.