Building a strong historical museum is a daunting task, but members of the PBY Memorial Foundation, the organization which runs the PBY – Naval Aviation History Museum in Oak Harbor, believe they are on the path to success.
That was the prevailing message at the second annual community luncheon, held Tuesday at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge.
“We like to say we’re learning to speak “museum” day by day,” said Wil Shellenberger, president of the PBY Memorial Foundation. “We have a commitment to building a strong history museum the community can be proud of.”
Shellenberger outlined the progress the museum has made over the past year, which included creating a plan to help the museum reach its goals.
Currently, said Shellenberger, the museum is on the second of five modules included in an assessment that will prepare the PBY museum to enter the American Alliance of Museums, an organization that will help the PBY reach its ultimate goal of becoming a five-star museum preserving the rich history of Naval aviation on Whidbey Island and the Puget Sound region.
“As aircraft are retired, we watch our history fly away to be preserved in someone else’s museum,” Shellenberger told the audience. “We want to change that.”
While the move from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s Seaplane Base to its current location on Pioneer Way has been a good one, said Shellenberger, the museum is still operating in survival mode. It is making enough money to pay its bills, but not enough to attain the ultimate goal of constructing a hangar-style museum.
“No museum survives solely on admissions,” he said. “We are not able to put any significant money into expanding exhibits, etcetera.”
But there have been successes. Shellenberger said donations in 2015 passed the $50,000 mark for the first time. They are hoping to be able to increase that amount by ten percent in 2016. The museum also received grants and lodging tax money from Island County for the first time last year.
Shellenberger also tried to dispel certain myths surround the PBY museum, in particular that the museum receives financial support from the Navy.
“We receive great support from the public affairs office in terms of referrals to the museum,” he said. “And the Navy was instrumental in moving Gigi (as the museum has named its PBY aircraft) to its location downtown. It has done everything it can provide under Navy regulations.”
That does not include any money.
“Where the Navy comes through in spades, though, is with active duty volunteers,” Shellenberger said. “They are about 40 percent of our volunteer force and they are people sincerely interested in making an impact in their community.”
In all, the museum has about 118 active volunteers who put in more than 19,000 documented hours last year. Organizers hope to increase that volunteer number by 70 in 2016.
“Every volunteer hour makes a difference, whether it’s a few hours a year or 100 hours a year,” Shellenberger said, adding that the number of volunteer hours in 2015 equated to a value of more than $530,000.
Other goals for the coming year include opening Gigi’s interior for regular tours, an undertaking which requires two additional volunteers during normal operating hours. Another is opening an interactive Night Vision Goggle display, which requires a minimum of four pairs of goggles. The museum had enough to purchase two pairs, received a contribution of $600 for a third pair, and raised $655 at the luncheon to pay for a fourth pair, paving the way for the display to open in the spring.
“Our museum will be the first in the country to offer an interactive night vision experience,” said Shellenberger. Organizers feel sure that will help increase traffic at the museum, especially appealing to younger visitors.
Other plans in the works include hiring the museum’s first paid employee to oversee running the museum store and welcome center, thereby freeing up volunteers to help with tours and other projects. There is also talk of opening the museum for an additional day.
The group is also implementing a task force which will help formulate and implement the museum’s strategic plan.
All these efforts and more, said Shellenberger are designed to create community buy-in and help efforts to create a first-class aviation museum.
“We see 2016 as a year to move past surviving and move to thriving and becoming a part of the community,” he said, adding that the community’s financial support is essential. “If you like what we’ve done with minimal finances, just think what we can do with more.”
The PBY-Naval Aviation Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Information is available online by visiting www.pbymf.org