Glass Art & History – Tacoma’s Museums

So I did take a day off from volunteering on my vacation week a couple weeks ago to visit Tacoma on their third Thursday, catching the Tacoma Art Museum, Washington History Museum and the Glass Art Museum for free.

I hopped a Sound Transit bus from Seattle, about an hour trip. Going there it was smooth sailing, including using my ORCA pass, which counted my the bus fare amount my monthly Puget Pass on it is good for, then took out 75 cents from my e-purse where I had added $5. I was actually a little confused if it had worked right, but the driver assured me I was fine.


The bus left me off right in front of the Washington State History Museum, and I could see the Glass Art Museum through it’s portal. It was around noon, though, and I was hungry and in need of a restroom.  I saw the UW Tacoma campus across the street, and some restaurants, and decided to check out the college first.


I like the campus. A lot of nice looking college buildings, mixed in with old factories done over. Their student commons was in an old mattress factory.

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After touring the campus, I had lunch at Taco Del Mar, maybe not the most exciting choice (it’s a local chain), and neither the prices nor the food are as good as they once were; but it was filling. I was kind of shocked this branch no longer sold hard shell tacos, but I had a taco salad in a shell instead.


I headed across the street to my first art stop of the day – Tacoma’s Union Station. I had spied the Chihuly glass art work in the dark through the windows after a Springsteen concert a decade ago and wanted to see it up close this time.


It’s no longer a train station, now there’s a US Courthouse inside, and you have to show your ID to a friendly security guard who asks you what your business was. I think it was pretty obvious I was a tourist, and he even offered that the restrooms were downstairs.

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Ah, there’s the Chihuly glass installation right in the middle of the former waiting room, hanging from the dome. There are several other Chihuly pieces there as well, including the windows above the clock at what used to be the side the train stopped at, now the courthouse entrance.


Maybe I should back up for a moment for folks not from the Puget Sound area. Dale Chihuly is a famous glass artist, who is originally from Tacoma (and there wasn’t a museum I went to without at least one piece of his work). 


I also went downstairs at Tacoma’s Union Station and checked out their old train memorabilia now in glass cases. This was one of my favorites, from The Tacoma Sunday Ledger, April 30, 1911, with a front page headline on the opening of the new Union Station, which a cartoonist has fashioned as a lady’s hat.

I went next to the Tacoma Art Museum, just a couple blocks down the street, which I somehow did not take any pictures of, not even outside (and of course, inside, cameras are forbidden). The Tacoma Art Museum is free all day, from 10 am to  8 pm on first Thursdays. They have some Chihuly art (the most inside of any of the museums), and current exhibits include Northwest Art and Impressionism.

It was almost 2 pm by then, and time for free admission at the Washington State History Museum to begin. First, I wanted to check out the Chihuly Bridge of Glass and the outside of the Museum of Glass in daylight, as free admission there started at 5 pm.

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass is a pedestrian overpass running from behind the Washington State Art Museum and Union Station across the freeway to the Museum of Glass near the old Albers Mill (now converted to lofts and an art gallery).


As you head across from the Pacific Ave. side, look up! Chihuly glass creations seemingly strewn about in a clear glass enclosure.

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Then you walk by purple crystal installations. . .


Then display cases full of more intricate Chihuly creations. Here’s one up close.

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Then you walk down the stairs to the Glass Art Museum and the Thea Foss Waterway Esplanade.


I headed back over to the Washington State History Museum next. I love their slogan: “History is not for wimps.”


They told me when I came in that if I came back at 7 pm I could catch a sneak preview of their new Sasquatch exhibit!

I toured their Great Hall of Washington History meanwhile, starting with a display of Washington Over Time taking us through the ice age and lava flows that formed the landscape of the state.

The exhibit included displays on the first encounters between the Native Americans and European Americans; including a very sad one of voiced narrating “The Big Sick” they encountered diseases like small pox, the flue and measles from the white people they had no resistance to.

History continued to literally talk to me as I went through a general store from the 1800s full of customers and those who worked there, who you can push a button to ask each of them questions about their lives. Then a train where the passengers started talking to each other as you walked up to them – a family and then a couple immigrants from Scandinavia.

At one point I walked right into the middle of a good natured debate between two residents of Seattle’s Hooverville during the Great Depression. There was quite a bit about the Wobblies (IWW), including Seattle’s General Strike of 1919. Yep, 80 years before WTO we had workers shutting the city down to protest for workers’ rights and justice.

After leaving the Washington History Museum, I decided to wander around a bit while it was still daylight. I walked through the UW Tacoma Campus and up the hill just to check out a little more of the area.


Tracks run through the campus, although I don’t know if trains roll down them anymore.

I went to Cutters Point Coffee on Pacific Avenue next and had coffee and a cookie, looking toward the Glass Art Museum, my next destination, but now not my last, remembering I had a rendezvous with Sasquatch.


I walked back across the Bridge of Glass and headed down the stairs to the museum entrance just of the Thea Foss Waterway. This sculpture is right in front, and looks pretty at night.

I was really blown away by the exhibit of Native American artist Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows. You can see some of his pieces in the video above and more on his website: He works so much of his Tlingit heritage into his art, from the designs to the folk lore like raven stealing the sun. Catch it through September 19.

Also very cool is the Kids Design Glass exhibit. All the pieces are from designs drawn from the imagination of kids of all kinds of weird critters, which the Museum’s Hot Shop Team then created. They do have replicas of some of them for sale at the museum store.

Then you can go into the hot shop, and you can watch artists creating glass artwork – heating it in the furnaces, shaping it, blowing it.

You can watch them work live online during museum hours at:

I had a hard time dragging myself away from the hot shop, but I did want to catch Sasquatch. When I got back to the Washington State History Museum, I found I had just missed the lecture, but was directed to the exhibit upstairs. I was fascinated by the recreation of the skull of the thought to be long extinct Gigantopithecus blacki in comparison to the much smaller skulls of a gorilla and man. See this article in the Tacoma News Tribune for a photograph:

When you think of it, didn’t the gorilla used to be considered a myth as well? It doesn’t seem so far fetched to me.

I found I had also missed that whole floor, which includes a large model railroad set, going around a 1950s model of Tacoma.

Also, on that floor Jackson Street After Hours, The Roots of Jazz in Seattle.

Then there was the Icons of Washington State exhibit.

The Rainier Beer bigfoot commercials from the 70s? I don’t know about that one. . .

Other icons included a recreated wagon by pioneer Ezra Meeker, ink well from Lewis & Clark, and oh, my, a chunk of “Galloping Gertie”, the original Tacoma Narrows bridge that swayed like an amusement park ride and came crashing down in 1940 shortly after it was built.

Account of the collapse from the Washington DOT website:

Admittedly, there are cheerier icons of Washington, like the Space Needle and Mt. Rainier – a giant painting of it was included, and a World’s Fair poster of the Space Needle.

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It was nearly 8 pm and the museum was getting ready to close, so I headed across the street to catch the Sound Transit back. This driver thought I owed money over my Puget Pass, but I explained I had put an extra $5 on my ORCA card. I worried that maybe the Puget Pass wasn’t usable on the Sound Transit system like it used to be. When I got on my regular bus in Seattle, though, it showed the amount over my pass as being $3.50, so it had deducted the 75 cents extra both ways.  They still need to work on explaining these cards to both riders and drivers.

I enjoyed my day in Tacoma (and it was nice to get a small vacation in my vacation)!