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Updated Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 11:09 PM

Exploring culture, history, art along Tacoma's museum row

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist

This may be the time to stop teasing Tacoma.

The longtime home of the paper-mill-made "aroma" has blossomed into Seattle's cultural cousin to the south, with a museum district that just got a significant boost from the completion of the LeMay-America's Car Museum (ACM), set to open Saturday.

We thought it might be time to pack a change of clothes and head south for an overnight to take a fresh look around.

And as we headed north the next day, we knew: We have to do that again.

We started at Hotel Murano, which four years ago was purchased by the Provenance Hotel chain. The former Sheraton is now a sleek, cool museum all its own. From the ceiling of the four-story atrium hang three colored-glass Viking ships by the Danish artist Vibeke Skov. Each floor of the 25-story hotel features a different glass artist, with an exhibit case that welcomes visitors as they step off the elevator.

Even better, once you check into the Murano, you don't need to drive again.

Just a 12-minute walk down the hill are the Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum, the Children's Museum of Tacoma and, over a bridge that is a Dale Chihuly exhibit all its own, the Museum of Glass.

At the Washington State History Museum, there are still those exhibits that never get old.

You can still press a button and see the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. At another exhibit on the Hanford Nuclear Facility, you can hear a historian describe "Hanford's legacy of waste," and a Nez Perce elder talk about how it took away natives' food, polluted the air and contaminated groundwater.

The History Museum is now featuring a well-timed exhibit called "Hope in Hard Times: Washington During the Great Depression," which runs through Nov. 4.

There is a series of photographs from the Works Progress Administration, which kept people working; and about 100 sketches by Ronald Debs Ginther, who chronicled Depression life while living and struggling in Seattle.

The museum asks visitors to share their memories of the Depression on slips of paper posted on a board. A man named Allan wrote that his mother, born in 1924, collected Styrofoam "because they had nothing."

"I do that now!" someone scribbled on the bottom of the note.

The Tacoma Art Museum is celebrating the opening of the Chihuly museum at Seattle Center by highlighting its 38-piece, permanent exhibit. But the museum is also keeping incredible company these days with "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." The exhibit, which runs through June 10, is its only West Coast stop.

Here, you can see works by renowned artists "in a context that emphasizes the importance of gay and lesbian identity, sexuality, AIDS, and of gender difference in shaping modern American portraiture."

In just a few rooms, you can take in an oil painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, photographs by Carl Van Vechten, Walker Evans and Thomas Eakins; self-portraits by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and painter Romaine Brooks. There are works by John Singer Sargent, J.C. Leyendecker, Keith Haring, Annie Leibovitz and Jasper Johns. All gathered from museums and collections all over the world. Get there.

Cross the Chihuly Bridge of Glass to the Museum of Glass, and see the beauty that can be made from "slumped glass."

Right now, the museum is featuring "Scapes," the work of Laura de Santillana and her brother, Alessandro Diaz de Santillana. The four-room exhibit is set up along the Hindu belief that the universe is divided into separate spheres of existence: Earth, Space, Sun, and Moon and Constellations. Glass is blown and slumped over plywood in layer upon layer, then trimmed in gold guild. To gaze at these pieces is to fall into the sea, or the night sky — and everything in between.

The museum's Hot Shop is a chance to see how glass artists are also daredevils, creating with a 2,300-degree "gloryhole" that opens like the glowing maw of Hades.

On this day, Oakland, Calif.-based artists Jerry Kung and Alexander Abajian were creating three- and four-legged creatures that would be exhibited in groups.

All that heat might make you thirsty, so don't miss The Swiss Bar and restaurant, which smartly advertises "minors until 8 p.m."

Tacoma may be full of museums and culture, but that doesn't mean it still can't pull you a cold one.

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com

Hotel Murano

1320 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma. Rates range from $169 to $369. The hotel offers a "Staycation" package with a $40 discount to Washington residents. See www.hotelmuranotacoma.com, or call 888-862-3255.

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