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In the News

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Mark Tolonen, Curator
LORI ASSA — The Daily Astorian
Mark Tolonen, the new curator of the Seaside Museum & Historical Society, works on cataloging contributed historical photos,

More than safekeeping keepsakes
Seaside museum looks ahead with new curator

Tuesday, February 18, 2003
The Daily Astorian,


Studio portrait by Montag
Submitted by the Seaside Museum & Historical Society
This portrait of an unidentified woman from the early 1900s is an example of photographer William Montag's studio work, which displays a mock-up of the ocean and the Seaside promenade.

She strikes a frolicsome pose in her swimming costume, her fashion complete with parasol, hat, stockings and shiny shoes – a bathing beauty ready for a day at the beach.

The portrait of the unidentified woman from the early 1900s is one of thousands of photographs taken by William Montag. A mockup of the Prom wall with sand from the beach and a blue sky backdrop allowed him to control conditions in his studio, located in the same building as the indoor saltwater swimming pool where today the Trendwest Resorts tower rises south of the Turnaround.

Montag brought his camera outside the studio, too, capturing everything from sand-sculpting contests to the fire of 1912. The photographs offer glimpses into his own vision and the atmosphere of another time.

Volunteers Welcomed
The Seaside Museum and Historical Society, 570 Necanicum Drive, is welcoming volunteers for consideration to assist its computer data entry registrar work. More information is available at or by contacting Curator or (503) 738-7065.

Just as Montag captured images on glass plates, Mark Tolonen, the new curator of the Seaside Museum and Historical Society, is capturing them on computer.

Gradually he has been scanning the negatives, printing copies on paper and compiling information so it can be readily searched and retrieved. So far, he has scanned 427 images.

“Scanning the museum’s Montag collection is a fun example of using technology to share information and promote history,” Tolonen says. “I have some experience building interactive Web sites, and hope to eventually have the museum’s collection online.”

The goal is no small task. With each museum item or photograph on one sheet of paper, and each of those sheets placed in three-inch notebook binders, the stack extends along a shelf more than seven feet.

But the work of a registrar is important, Tolonen says. As more records are entered in the computer, the museum staff will be able to more efficiently keep track of the artifacts in its collection, avoid duplication when people offer to donations, and limit how much potentially delicate items need to be handled.

Rediscovering the past
Montag died in 1944, and for decades no one knew what happened to many of his photographs. But in 1993, during plumbing work, 1,421 glass plate negatives were discovered in buckets and boxes under what had been his house on Avenue A.

More than 20 museum supporters pulled together and purchased them, bringing the total number of Montag images in the museum’s collection to nearly 2,000.

Recording them digitally for the computer provides a variety of bonuses, Tolonen says. The museum staff can electronically send the images to others, and it can magnify details.

Seaside Natatorium - current site of Trendwest ResortPhoto courtesy of Seaside Museum and Historical Society
At the site of the current Trendwest structure, south of the Turnaround in Seaside, once stood a building which housed both a salt water pool and William Montag’s portrait studio.

A picture of the Gilbert block under construction in 1914 at the corner of Broadway and Holladay Drive includes construction workers smaller than matchsticks in the original. But with the computer’s graphic system, “you can zoom in and see the mustaches of these guys,” Tolonen says.

Details can be especially important when trying to determine the date a photograph was taken. When a postcard does not include a postmark,

for example, the logo of the company that made it or even the arrangement of symbols surrounding the words “Place Stamp Here” can provide clues about the date because the symbols changed over time.

But photographic collections represent only one facet of the museum and historical society, based at 570 Necanicum Drive.

The museum includes exhibits highlighting local geology, Native American culture and Seaside’s history, primarily through World War II. Its nonprofit organization also continues to furnish the adjacent 1912 beach cottage known as the Butterfield House with furnishings of that time.

Tolonen, whose part-time role as curator is the only paid position for the organization, is the first to credit more than 35 volunteers, its board of directors and 225 members. “It’s a great team.”

History made personal
Tolonen adds that he relishes the chance to offer ways for people to better understand history. Previously one of the museum’s volunteers, he took his new role this month to succeed Phyllis Hamlin, the museum’s office manager since 1996, who retired earlier this year.

His grandparents and great-grandparents had lived in Astoria, and he remembers visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum as a child, when it was located where the Heritage Museum is now.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history and completing a graduate program in cultural resource management in Victoria, British Columbia, Tolonen returned to the North Coast to work at the Maritime Museum.

“I had my degree in history, but didn’t particularly want to be a classroom teacher,” he explained. “I enjoy the educational aspect of sharing history, but for me it’s rewarding to work with the artifacts and historical resources.”

Tolonen was curator of the Clatsop County Historical Society for three years in the mid-1990s before turning his focus to the Computer Information Center in Astoria, a grant-funded position with a limited timeframe. He spent a year in the private sector building Web sites, including a site for the Compleat Photographer.

“I’m hoping I can take these skills to the Seaside Museum,” he said.

Other projects under way that particularly excite Tolonen include the development of kits for classrooms, as proposed by volunteer Micki Towell. The kits contain artifacts, utensils and once everyday appliances that help observers to envision the past.

Rather than using replica materials, “the contents are old, the Real McCoy,” Tolonen says.

Even if the objects do not have a story unique to Seaside, in which case they might be on display, they can still be valuable for offering a sense of the culture of the local past, he says.

“It’s another way to make the story of history enjoyable.”

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