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New Branding Re-Energizes Bellingham’s SPARK Museum

The SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention is something very unique to Bellingham. Believe it or not, this humble spot just downtown houses the largest public display of antiques and relics from the early days of electric technology in the entire world. More famous spots like the Smithsonian and the British Museum of Science may have larger collections, but most of their items remain in storage. In terms of patron experience, the SPARK is one-of-a-kind.

SPARK’s collection, though, isn’t just impressive in scale. The museum also houses some of the most historically significant electrical relics out there. Did you know that Bellingham is home to Edison’s first working light bulb? Were you aware that we also host a telephone used to make the first transcontinental phone call? If this information is new to you, it’s time to visit the SPARK museum.

The History of Collecting History

Edison's First Lightbulb on White background

The SPARK Museum has undergone a variety of iterations in the past couple of decades, and each has involved Jonathan Winter. Winter’s hobby is collecting antique radios, and in 1998 he opened the Bellingham Antique Radio Museum on Railroad. The original museum was mainly based around a core set of 800 radios from his collection.

Prior to the opening of his own museum, Winter had met John Jenkins, a sales and marketing executive at Microsoft whose own passion was collecting artifacts pertaining to the history of electricity. While traveling for Microsoft, Jenkins had made connections with other collectors which had allowed him to acquire some of the more historically relevant items in the current museum, such as the aforementioned telephone and light bulb.

When Jenkins retired in 2000, he and Winter decided to combine their collections and create a new museum: the American Museum of Radio and Electricity. Jenkins had grown up in Bellingham, and had enjoyed visiting downtown to do Christmas shopping in his youth. He was dismayed by the decline of the neighborhood in the wake of the construction at Bellis Fair, and so he and Winter agreed to keep the museum located downtown to help revitalize the area. Jenkins bought the building on Bay street in which the museum currently resides (as well as the building containing the Pickford Film Center), and the new museum opened in 2001.

Keeping The Current Flowing

Megazapper poster on black background

Just like many other small businesses, the SPARK ran into financial difficulties towards the end of the 2000s. The museum had been operating at a loss for several years, and attendance rates weren’t increasing. Jenkins had been underwriting the shortfalls with his own money, and the if things stayed the same the museum would have to shut down. It was clear something had to change, and so Jenkins started asking around for advice.

What he found was that the museum had three major issues preventing it from drawing in more visitors: branding, the streetscape, and the lack of a major attraction to generate interest. 60% of museum’s visitors come from out of the county, and most people weren’t willing to travel that far just for a light bulb and a telephone. Once the problems were identified, the Jenkins set about finding ways to fix them.

Early electrical inventions exhibit

Dealing with the branding issue came first. The current logo for the museum was an image of an antique radio, and people in town generally referred to the location as “the radio museum.”
After a few meetings and consultations, the name was changed to SPARK, with the subtitle ‘museum of electrical invention.’ Jenkins worked with local businesses including Architectural Elements and Shew Design to create a logo and signage for the new name.

The fix the second issue the board decided to redo the exterior of the building. Jenkins decided that restoring the building to its original 1912 appearance would fit with the SPARK’s theme, and process that involved removing the 1980s stucco and other modern additions. The process also involved replacing the exhibits on display in the windows, which created an appearance that Jenkins likened to “a flea market.” The windows now contain eccentric posters with content relevant to the museum.

The final issue, finding an attraction to bring in more guests, was solved in dramatic fashion. Jenkins managed to acquire a nine foot tall Tesla coil, and contracted a sculptor in Sedro Wooley to construct a Farraday Cage to go with it. These two items would be the centerpiece of an electrical show which the SPARK now holds on weekends. Visitors can donate to the museum for the opportunity to sit in the cage and be surrounded by lightning, earning them a sticker to demonstrate their bravery.

Revitalized And Recharged

Spark Musuem Sign on building exterior

The branding overhaul was exactly what the SPARK needed to find its stride. The grand reopening of the museum in 2012 drew in more than 2,000 visitors in one weekend. Annual attendance in the previous years had average only 4,000 visitors. The past three years have seen that number more than quadruple to an annual average of 17,000 visitors.

The SPARK’s newfound popularity has allowed it to become financially solvent (albeit not yet profitable), and the influx has benefited the city as well. Jenkins observes that a survey conducted a couple of years ago indicated tourists visiting Bellingham for the sole purpose of visiting the SPARK museum had contributed over $500,000 to the local economy. That’s over 10 times the amount of the grant the city provides the museum for bringing in tourists.

Although the SPARK is now financially stable, long-term goals still rely heavily on funding. Currently, the museum only employs five people, four of whom work half-time or less. In order to expand the museum or offer more temporary exhibits, new sources of funding will need to be located. The museum currently conducts very few fundraising initiatives, however, so the board has a lot of avenues through which to locate new sources of revenue.
Old telephones on a white wall

In the meantime, the SPARK does have a few projects on deck. One of the more well-known facets of the museum is the in-house radio station, KMRE 102.3 FM. Originally conceived as an exhibit illustrating what a 1920s radio station would look like, the project was modified due to FCC regulations that prevented modern radio stations from broadcasting with outdated equipment. Now, KMRE mainly serves as a local oddity, broadcasting radio shows and music from the pre-television era.

Recently, however, the SPARK hired Susanne Blais as the new station manager with the goal of revamping the content schedule for KMRE. The goal is to combine the original programming with community-oriented segments focusing on providing information and debate on local issues. Jenkins also indicated that the museum is looking to expand the number of interactive pieces, and hopefully host a few temporary exhibits in the future.

Despite the museum’s own troubles, one thing has always remained consistent: the SPARK gives back to the community. The cash flow brought in by tourists is excellent, certainly, but the benefit to Bellingham is cultural and educational as well. The SPARK offers children and adults the chance to learn about the history of our current technology in a fun and interactive environment, as well as providing us one more source of local pride. After all, not everyone can say their town has Edison’s first light bulb.

Have you had a great experience while visiting the SPARK museum? Let us know about it in the comments!

Tobias Osterhaug

Tobias Osterhaug

Tobias is a full-time contributor to Bellingham Business News, covering local business events, tech news, and advice for job seekers in the Bellingham area. He graduated from Western Washington University with a double major in History and Chinese Language & Cultural Studies, and has previously worked as a coordinator in Western’s Writing Center.

6 Comments

  1. Sondra Perkins
    January 24, 2015 at 7:11 am

    I have brought my grandchildren here and they enjoyed themselves immensely, while learning so much about history. I was surprised that Bellingham had this treasure, and it wasn’t better known. I would recommend it to anyone, it is an amazing place. Thank you to the owners who have worked so hard to share it with us all !

  2. Kenton
    January 25, 2015 at 2:17 pm

    When I went to visit there was so much to see and take in that I was overwhelmed. This museum is worth multiple visits.

  3. Kim smith
    January 25, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I love this museum! Brought a group of high IQ people to visit and we all agreed this was a fabulous museum and managed to satisfy everyone’s individual interests.

  4. Tassie Kowal
    January 26, 2015 at 6:21 am

    Last school year both of my kids visited SPARK with their Fourth Grade classes (Wade King Elementary) which made for a great hands-on experience to support their Unit of Inquiry at school. I loved watching all of the kids faces light up (no pun intended) throughout the show and guided tour. I had no idea such a treasure existed in Bellingham and wished that their summer classes for kids had worked out with our schedule.

  5. January 26, 2015 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for sharing Tassie! We always love to hear about kids engaging with the awesome educational opportunities Bellingham provides. Did they have a favorite exhibit or part of the show?

  6. April
    January 28, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Wow, I had no ideam . we will be stopping in to check it out.

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