The Whatcom Museum Serves Homeless Adults and Families

We recently interviewed Mary Jo Maute, Education Coordinator at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA regarding the museum’s participation in Project Homeless Connect (PHC). PHC is an annual day-long event during which medical and other services are provided to people (adults and children) experiencing homelessness in Bellingham and Whatcom County. This year, PHC took place on July 27th, served more than 450 individuals, and counted about 200 volunteers thanks to the Whatcom Volunteer Center. It was the first time for the museum to participate in a homeless-related initiative and will, hopefully, not be the last!

Incluseum: How did you get involved with PHC?

Mary Jo: I have a friend, Kristin Hill, who works for the Opportunity Council in Bellingham and is involved with coordinating PHC every year. She contacted me to see if the Whatcom Museum would be interested in participating in this years PHC, because the event organizers were interested in having more creative/cultural opportunities for the guests. This is the first year they’ve asked us to take part in this event and our participation was a test run to see how guests would respond to the activities we offered.

Incluseum: What creative/cultural opportunities did the museum offer?

Mary Jo: We currently have an exhibit on view at the Whatcom called Ray Turner: Population, which is a traveling portrait exhibit, that we wanted to connect with PHC. So we offered three different activities related to portraiture:

  1. Model Magic Clay portraits that guests could make
  2. face painting for kids
  3. an artist, Ellen Clark, who painted guests’ portraits

Photo by Lauren Stelling, courtesy of the Whatcom Museum

We weren’t sure if guests were going to be interested in sitting for 10-15 minutes to get their portrait painted, but they definitely were, this was the most popular activity! The artist was there for several hours and if we had had 2 to 3 more, they would all have been pretty busy.

Incluseum: You had mentioned that you were going to be giving out free museum passes during the event, did you end up doing that?

Mary Jo: Yes, we did. We went through those pretty quickly and gave them to anyone who came to our booth, participated in our activities, or showed interested in art. Many guests also picked up copies of our newsletter and were interested in learning more about the museum.

Incluseum: In your opinion, what was the highlight of your participation in the event?

Mary Jo: To me, the highlight was seeing the response that guests had to having their portraits painted. They were really excited, would sit and chat with the artist…those walking by would stop to look and chat as well, a mother pulled in her daughters and dog to be painted with her…people just loved it!

It was also nice to get to meet the various guests along with the volunteers who helped during the event. I had seen many people around the community or the museum before, so it was great to take time to talk and establish new relationships. For example, I met guests who participate at our family activities and some who told me they used to come to the museum when it was free. It was great!

Photo by Lauren Stelling, courtesy of the Whatcom Museum

Incluseum: Is there anything you would do differently in the future?

Mary Jo: While the kids enjoyed playing with the clay, there were definitely more adults than children at the event, so I would plan more for that in the future. The adults were tired from this busy day so the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes to have their portrait painted was perfect…I will remember that if we participate again in the future.

Incluseum: From your perspective, how did your participation in PHC support the Whatcom Museum’s mission?

Mary Jo: Our mission includes involving the widest audience possible in our community and beyond, so this was a great way to connect with people who are not usually served by the museum or don’t think to come to the museum, especially now that we charge an admission fee.

Incluseum: How do you view your involvement with PHC or the homeless population in the future?

Mary Jo: Now that we’ve participated in this sort of event, I anticipate getting more invitations from other local organizations to take part in similar opportunities. We will also continue to seek out such opportunities; it’s definitely worthwhile and our director is all for it!

Photo by Lauren Stelling, courtesy of the Whatcom Museum

Incluseum: Do you have any words of advice for museums interested in this sort of project?

Mary Jo: Most cities have projects like PHC through United Way where museums could fit in. Other than that, many organizations serving homeless or low-income individuals (governmental agencies, social service networks, churches, schools, etc.) often organize events where museums could participate.

We tried to keep our participation low key so that it wouldn’t have a huge impact on staff time.

Why The Incluseum likes this project: 

  • This is a great example of how museums can seize opportunities and fit within an existing, local, community-based project.
  • It allowed the Whatcom Museum to extend the reach of its resources and connect to a segment of its local community not typically served by the museum.
  • The Whatcom Museum saw this as a chance to further its mission.
  • Participation in such events can help establish new relationships and  contribute to community building.
  • This example demonstrates how social inclusion in museums can be inexpensive, simple, and low-key…while being of great value.

Has your museum ever participated in similar community events? We would love to hear your stories!

Give us feedback


  1. […] to connect with marginalized community members. One of many examples, as we discussed in our blog post, one example of this is the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA, which recently participated in […]

  2. […] Social inclusion can take many shapes and forms. It can occur through an exhibit and its development process, a low-cost ‘pop-up’ strategy than can be implemented both inside and outside of the museum walls, or a decision to participate in community events. […]

  3. […] interviewing Mary Jo Maute about the Whatcom Museum’s participation in Project Homeless Connect, she told us of the free family membership program the museum offers to qualifying low-income […]

  4. […] year, we interviewed Mary Jo Maute, Education Coordinator at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA regarding the museum’s […]

  5. […] who’ve traditionally not had a voice and presence in museum spaces (e.g., latino families, homeless adults, and individuals with physical or cognitive […]

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