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Harbor History Museum: Free and Awesome Hands-On Fun With Kids

Interactive, kid-friendly museum offers a taste of history that kids will love

Published on: May 03, 2018

Row boat at Harbor History Museum
Photo:
Nikki McCoy

In a world that's moving at an almost alarming speed toward the future, it’s important to slow down and be in the present — and sometimes, in the past.

At the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor, I found my family could do both. As one of the most interactive and kid-friendly museums we’ve been to, this was a place where my sons could involve themselves in the present-moment with games, hands-on features and noise-makers, while at the same time exploring the rich and varied past of the South Puget Sound.

And best of all? Thanks to a grant from the city of Gig Harbor, the Harbor History Museum is free to everyone all year long.

old classroom at Harbor History Museum
Going old school. Credit Nikki McCoy

A 40-minute drive from Olympia or Seattle, and just 10 minutes from Tacoma, charming Gig Harbor is teeming with fun, inexpensive and kid-friendly stuff to do.

Gig Harbor is also full of friendly people, beautiful views of the historic waterfront and fun shopping. We hit the local bookstore, enjoyed a tasty lunch at Kelly’s (free meals for kids on Tuesdays!) and climbed 100 stairs to take in the view, all within walking distance of the museum.

Best of the museum

My family really enjoyed the museum. With input from my eight-year-old and twelve-year-old, I compiled my list of the ten best things to do at the Harbor History Museum.  

1. Grab a gallery game pack. This game is designed for kids aged four to eleven and the see-through backpacks (available at the front desk) are filled with fun games and challenges to highlight all the gems of the museum. Use a magnifying glass to hunt for clues, learn how to tie a seaman’s knot and play a Bingo game finding particular items among the museum’s 29,000 artifacts and images. 

kids' activities at Harbor History Museum
Kids' activities at the Harbor History Museum. Credit: Nikki McCoy

2. Row a boat. An educational video accompanies this interactive exhibit. Kids can practice their rowing skills while learning about the rowboat’s role in the Harbor-Peninsula’s history. 

3. Raise a sail. This activity was suggested to us by the friendly receptionist. In the outdoor gallery, kids can grab some rope and hoist a sail, bringing the “The Kaitlyn” to all her glory. 

4. Make some noise. With so many options to learn through sound, this was one of my kids’ favorite features. Twist knobs to hear the sounds of island roosters (rooster racing is a historic pastime on the Harbor), listen to Twulshootseed, a dialect of Lushootseed, which is part of the larger Salish language group, and play the concertina, an accordion-style instrument that was popular in the 19th century. 

Harbor History lunch
Credit Nikki McCoy

5. Explore a pioneer classroom. What’s for lunch in 1901? Open tin lunchboxes for a glimpse at what a child might have eaten in the early 20th century. Sit at an antique desk and imagine life as a pioneer school child. 

6. Meet a docent. Harbor History Museum staff and volunteers are well informed and provide lots of tips and tidbits during your visit. On Saturday afternoons, you can meet 95-year-old Mickey Doonan, who has been volunteering as a docent for more than five years. 

Shenandoah ship
"The Shenandoah." Courtesy Harbor History Museum

7. Climb aboard a vintage fishing vessel. "The Shenandoah" has been a resident of the museum since 2010 when the museum opened in its current building. The vessel is being lovingly restored for its 100th birthday — coming up in 2025. Visitors can sit at the ship’s galley table, peer through pilot house windows and view the ship's vintage Atlas engine.

8. Weave a basket. The Indigenous people of the region have a lot to teach us. The entire museum site and next-door Austin Estuary Park were once inhabited by a Native encampment. Basket-weaving is one way to learn more about the lifestyle of the Puyallup tribe. At this exhibit, kids can weave the past into their knowledge.  

9. Attend an event or special program. Kids, start hunting now for the roundest rock you can find and you may earn a prize in the round rock contest taking place this summer. And watch for upcoming special events, many of them family friendly, on the website. The museum also offers field trips for school groups.

10. Browse the gift shop. Local artisans and immigrant history are the themes of the cute and clever gift shop. You can even find toys and kitchenware made from old boards from the Shenandoah. 

If you go...

Where: The Harbor History Museum is located at 4121 Harborview Drive, Gig Harbor. Parking is free in the parking lot and on the surrounding streets.

When: The museum's summer hours, in effect now, are Tuesday–Saturday,10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday 1–5 p.m. Call 253-858-6722 if you’d like to schedule a group tour.

Cost: Admission is free throughout 2018 thanks to a grant from the city of Gig Harbor; this grant may be renewed.

More fun: Donkey Creek Park is directly across the street from the museum if the kids get the zoomies, or you want to plan ahead for a picnic.

Stretch your legs climbing to the top of these stairs.

Meal stops include a gourmet burger shop and teriyaki joint across the street from the museum, or Kelly’s Café, a short drive (or hearty walk) from the museum. Espresso, beer and ice cream, as well as popular diner items are all on the menu.

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