Tacoma is home to amazing museums like the Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum and the Washington State History Museum, but there are other lesser-known museums that offer changing exhibits and a unique visitor experience. One of these is the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Tacoma, which is one of the city’s lesser known attractions, yet it houses some of the world’s rarest literary documents and gets about 25,000 visitors a year. The Tacoma location is one of 13 museums, all of which are the creation of owner and museum founder David Karpeles.
“He had this eureka idea to create the museum after taking his kids to Huntington Library in California,” says Tom Jutilla, Executive Director at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum.
While the library that inspired the museum is similar, in that it has rare manuscripts, the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums are different in the types of exhibits and the fact that the Karpeles Museums are free to visit. Tom says that when Karpeles originally had the idea in the late ‘60s, there weren’t many other people or organizations acquiring rare manuscripts and other texts.
With a collection boasting over 1 million manuscripts, David Karpeles owns the largest private holding of historic manuscripts in the United States. The manuscripts rotate to all the museums owned by Karpeles, which are located in various parts of the country.
“The holding we have, I always say we’re like a mini-Smithsonian,” Tom says.
There’s no fixed exhibit and the manuscripts change about every four months. And besides having historical documents inside, the Tacoma museum itself holds a bit of history. Built in 1931, the location that houses the manuscripts was formerly an American Legion, used by veterans of the first World War.
The structure was built by Henry A. Rhodes, a man who owned department stores in Tacoma and Seattle, and lost his son in World War I. Bits of the building’s original purpose can be seen in the current museum. For instance, what is now the main exhibit room once served as a dancing hall, and there’s also a large painting mounted above the entryway, commemorating the American Legion.
Since the museum is privately owned, visitors take self-guided tours rather than following a program. Tom says a variety of visitors come to the museum, from area residents as well as tourists, to local schools and homeschool groups, to college students, scholars, and professors.
With documents on display that come from various eras of history and a broad range of subjects including literature, war, education, religion, science and art, the exhibits draw a wide audience.
“So much of this is still relevant to today and people come in to learn more about things they’ve just studied in school,” Tom says.
Just a few of the noteworthy exhibits include pieces from the Civil War, the Great Depression and a report written by Thomas Jefferson on the progress of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
There’s also been a fair share of fun exhibits at the Tacoma location, including an exhibit on science fiction. When die hard sci-fi fans visited the museum to view the items on display, which included drawings of the Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek, some fun and interesting things happened.
“There were people dressed up in costumes, and we had groups here performing Klingon poetry,” Tom recalls fondly.
Of course, the exhibits are not always so lighthearted. Some of the more sobering exhibits have included a history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
“Hiroshima isn’t just a one-sided tale, it also talks about the grief and devastation on the Japanese side,” Tom says of that exhibit.
No doubt that through his job he’s seen an invaluable amount of literary artifacts, but Tom says he feels as though he’s been introduced to the greatest minds of the world through his time at the museum. He has worked at the museum for 24 years, and started as the assistant director, a position he held for 14 years. Besides seeing so much history, he also gets to engage with a variety of people.
“I meet so many unique people and hear about their experiences,” Tom says.
When asked about one of his favorite aspects about working at the museum, he says seeing the way people take different viewpoints and different takeaways from the exhibits is important to him. “It awakens me to what people are seeing and how they’re seeing it.”
The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is located at 407 South G Street. To find out more about the museum, call 253-383-2575.