Perin brings passion for past to part-time role
Although the Shafer Museum provides a window into the past, it’s clear that the museum’s board of directors keeps an eye on the future, as evidenced by the recent hire of the museum’s first paid director, Suzanne Perin.
Perin, who began work in early December, is uncannily well-suited for the position. From her roots as a seventh-grade volunteer docent at Pasadena, California’s, historic Gamble House to her master of arts degree in museology (the study of museum management and organization) and Ph.D. in learning sciences, to her years working in museums and science centers, Perin has been interested in artifacts, collections, and how people learn from displayed objects for nearly her entire life.
“I’m fascinated by the power of learning from real and replicated objects,” said Perin. Such objects, and the times and places of their origins, said Perin, “tell stories.”
After visiting the Methow Valley several times over the past few years, Perin, her husband, and their two daughters (ages 5 and 9) moved to Twisp in August 2017. Coincidentally, her daughter’s second-grade classroom needed parent chaperones for an upcoming field trip to the Shafer Museum, and Perin hopped on the school bus.
The Shafer Museum grabbed her attention right away, Perin said. “There is still such a connection to homesteads, the people who lived on them, and the way they lived,” she said, noting that many Methow Valley elders grew up on such homesteads. “Their stories are so near to us, we can really connect with them. I’m learning so many of these stories from the museum’s docents.”
Preserving the history of this pioneer and homesteading era is the Shafer Museum’s mission. But the artifacts of this heritage have little meaning or context if they’re not observed or experienced by audiences. So Perin’s aim as the museum’s director is to connect visitors with the museum, the objects it houses, and the stories that lie therein. Of particular interest to Perin are local audiences. “We get a lot of tourist traffic to the museum,” said Perin, “but we’d like it be even more of a place that local families visit.”
Board members and indisputable Shafer Museum champions Carl and Roxie Miller agree: “Our audience is the families of the valley.”
“Many people live in the Methow Valley because of their sense of connection to the landscape, the mountains, the river,” Perin said. “The Shafer Museum anchors us to a physical space and time, and the stories that emerge from this nurture our sense of place.”
The Shafer Museum’s origin itself provides a story. Perched on Castle Avenue above downtown Winthrop, the Shafer Museum occupies the site where Mr. and Mrs. Guy Waring lived in their dream home (“The Castle”) from 1896-1916. After serving as an Episcopal church for many years, the landmark log house was purchased by local merchant Simon Shafer and made into a museum, which has been expanding in size and scope since 1943.
The Shafer family donated the Shafer Museum to the Okanogan County Historical Society in 1976 and a volunteer group formed Friends of the Museum, which dedicates itself to the preservation of the Methow Valley’s pioneer, homesteader and mining heritage. Since then, the Shafer Museum has operated thanks to dedicated board members, an enthusiastic cadre of volunteer docents, revenue from memberships and book sales, grants and gifts. Tireless volunteer Roxie Miller points to a long history of volunteer grit that shaped the Shafer Museum into the flagship American West museum that it is today.
“The early years were full of volunteer work by the Shafer Family and local enthusiasts,” said Miller. “They brought mining equipment from Forest Service lands and built the mill. They formulated a long-term plan and went to work. They raised money through music events held on Sundays throughout the summer. They sold mining shares that we still have today. They held openings and had teas. They encouraged local businesses to sponsor work at the museum. They saved log cabins and brought them to the museum, built the trading company, dress shop, and doctor’s office. An incredible amount of work by volunteers.”
But progress is inevitable, even in a place dedicated to preserving the past. And for the Shafer Museum, progress means a long-range vision, a broader audience base, bigger outreach efforts. “The museum board has entertained the idea of having a part-time director for several years,” said Miller. “The growth of our museum as an important tourist attraction has created a burden to an all-volunteer board. Our hopes for the future of the museum to become a learning center with teaching programs and to formulate a digitalized research tool would be impossible without paid personnel. The opportunities to expand our local membership and our very good reputation as a unique open-air museum needs professional guidance.”
Perin’s background and passion spoke to the museum board. “[Perin’s] enthusiasm for the museum and our work was evident at our first interview,” said Miller. “[Her] love of history and her joy as a young docent in the museum world convinced us she was a perfect fit. We are confident that she will bring new ideas and excellent guidance to the museum.”
In her first few weeks on the job, Perin is looking toward strategic planning sessions with the board, to formulate a vision for what the Shafer Museum will look like in five years, 10 years and beyond. She’s also creating plans for expanding educational programming (including providing online access to museum resources like documents and photographs), providing professional development opportunities for docents, and creating a more robust development program.
Perin has also found time to explore the museum and learn about many of the artifacts. “I particularly like the school room,” she said, noting the appeal of the many historic photographs.
Perin also admits to a fascination with inventions. “These homesteaders created so many innovations to solve problems,” she said, citing inventions like the sock knitting machine, the nail sorter, and the “lazy husband” yarn holder.
Having worked in many science museums and science centers, Perin is aware of how much technology is on display in such places. “The Shafer Museum is full of technology too,” she said of the homesteaders’ devices.
While working quarter-time (balanced with a remote educational research job with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks), Perin will need to prioritize the long list of Shafer Museum’s objectives. But given the board’s dedication, the volunteer docents’ knowledge and commitment, and the important role the museum plays in the Methow Valley, Perin’s 10 hours a week can be leveraged to achieve the Shafer Museum’s aim of taking a place that celebrates the past century into the next century. As Miller said, “We are looking forward to taking new steps to keep our important valley history alive to future generations.”