Curating Blue Lake’s artifacts with Cynthia Gourley-Bagwell

By Noel DiBenedetto
Flapjack staff

As a young girl growing up in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Cynthia Gourley-Bagwell was always fascinated with the marvelous things that could be found inside museums. For so long she was drawn to the beauty and mystery of artifacts, and the stories that hid behind them. Now at 64 years old, she gets to work with these artifacts every day as the curator and president of the Blue Lake Museum here in Humboldt County.

Bagwell discovered her love for museums while she was growing up in her grandmother’s house, where the police station across the street had its own little museum.

“My grandmother would send us over with cookies, and I would get so excited to go in to their little museum,” she said. “They had all this beautiful Native American beading and regalia, projectile points, and tools. I was fascinated.”

Throughout her life whenever she traveled, she made sure to visit as many museums as she could; science museums, industry museums, and everything in between.

Bagwell got an AA in both history and anthropology at Columbia College before transferring to Cal State Stanislaus, where she then got her bachelor’s in geography and a minor in anthropology.

She continued her education even further here at Humboldt State, where she received her master’s in globalization and environmental studies, as well as two additional degrees in Native American studies and archaeology.

Her master’s thesis was focused on nominating the Round Valley Elementary School to the National Register of Historic Places. Round Valley  was one of the many notoriously abusive Indian boarding schools built in the 1870’s under President Grant. These schools were put in place to assimilate Native American children by taking them away from their families and tribes, and forcing them to learn English, cut their hair, burn their clothes, and destroy all aspects of their traditional culture.

“To properly do this thesis project, I felt like I didn’t have enough Native American Studies under my belt,” Bagwell said. “So that’s why I got my degree in Native American Studies, so I would understand it better instead of just being this white person going on to the reservation and doing my project, unaware of the context and what it really meant.”

She also took some museum studies classes and began volunteering at the Blue Lake Museum when Jean Leavitt was the curator, and had been the curator since the museum’s opening in 1982. Leavitt was in her late 80s when Bagwell began to volunteer there, and she had her work cut out for her.

“She showed me the back room, and nothing had been done in three years,” Bagwell recalled. “I walked in going, oh my goodness what did I get myself in to?”

She remembers battling with an endless amount of stickie notes and scribbled pieces of scratch paper left on artifacts, unorganized drawers and shelves, and it was overall chaos. So she went in everyday and started to slowly chip away at the mess, little by little, while Leavitt was there to answer any questions she had about what something was, where it came from, or who donated it.

The Blue Lake Museum runs entirely off of volunteers, donations, memberships and fundraising, which is why it continues to be a seasonal museum that is open to the public only during the Spring and Summer. Bagwell realized how much work needed to be done, and started looking for volunteers to intern at the museum from HSU.

“I remember how hard it was to get real, practical experience when I was a student,” she said. “We needed help, so I started recruiting students from anthropology classes.”

At first she had to actually go to anthropology classes and look for students, but that process became much easier once the anthropology department created a class, Archaeology and Museum practices, that was designed specifically so that students could be placed in internship programs that interested them.

The only condition Bagwell has for her interns is that they must have at least a B average for their grades. She knows that internships are important, but she also recognizes that they take time away from studying.

“If you’re struggling and getting C’s, you should concentrate on your studies,” she explained. “So if you weren’t doing well in school, forget it.”

Dr. Jeanette Cooper inherited the class from professor Marisol Cortes-Rincon, who had already set up the arrangement with Bagwell that provided her with two interns every spring semester.

Cooper herself has been involved in museum work before with the Philip’s House in Arcata as an undergrad, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology while she was working on her dissertation.

She has been teaching the class for four semesters, and sees how happy students are with the opportunities they’re presented with while taking it.

“It’s not often that a student leaves this class disappointed or unsatisfied with the experiences that they’ve gained through their internship,” Cooper said. “They get real working experience, it looks great on your CV or resume, and they make connections that can help them down the line when they’re looking for a job or applying for grad school.”

Previous Blue Lake Museum intern Holly Lemyre said she was drawn to the internship opportunity after the presentation Bagwell gave in her class.

“She was so knowledgeable and passionate about the history of Blue Lake that she made me want to be involved,” she said. “It was clear that she understood the importance of local history, and I wanted to understand that too.”

While Bagwell works with interns, they get to design their own exhibits, learn how to accession artifacts, and so much more that you would normally never get to experience working at a “big” museum.

“My favorite thing about interning there was handling and caring for items in the collections,” Lemyre said. “Usually museums are all look, no touch, so I felt like I was constantly breaking the rules.”

Bagwell makes sure to keep things interesting by rotating different exhibits as frequently as possible, which also provides interns with their own opportunity to help plan and put together different exhibits.

Everything that the Blue Lake Museum contains has been donated predominantly by locals and families who have been holding on to old items for quite some time. Bagwell says that a large portion of the artifacts come from the founding families that originally lived in the area.

She had always been interested in museums ever since she was a little girl, and has passed down that enthusiasm to her three kids and three grandkids as well, who love and appreciate museums just as much as she does.

Now, with the seasonal opening looming just around the corner on April 9, she says there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but that she’s excited.

“We just got a pretty huge donation, it’s the original printing press that was used for The Advocate right here in Blue Lake,” Bagwell said. “With this donation plus all the others that people have been making, I think we’re going to have a really good season.”

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