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Washington County Museum expects Hubble Space Telescope exhibit to kick-start expanded mission

The Washington County Museum is aiming for the star — both literally and TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Washington County Museum Curator Adam Mikos stands near a small part of the Hubble Space Telescope exhibit that opens on Nov. 17.

When the museum opens its new 12,000-square-foot display space in the Hillsboro Civic Center next month, it will feature a touring exhibit of the Hubble Space Telescope. The exhibit is part of the museum’s mission to reflect the technological history of the Silicon Forest.

But the expansion into the second floor of the center is also a major leap forward for the museum, which has been based for many years in a rustic, out of the way building on Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus, 17677 N.W. Springville Road.

“It’s a transformative change,” says Sam Shogren, the museum’s executive director.

When the museum agreed to expand into the Civic Center at 150 E. Main St. in Hillsboro, its board of directors committed to increasing the organizations visibility, activity and budget. Although the rent is free for 15 years, the museum must raised $3.5 million for tenant improvements, additional staff and renovations to its existing building, which will be kept and converted into a research and collections center. The annual budget must also increase from just over $500,000 to at least $650,000.

The move is not without risks. The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland struggled financially after moving from its modest, longtime headquarters into much larger quarters on the city’s North Park Blocks. It was eventually compelled to merge with the Pacific Northwest College of Art in the Pearl District to survive.

Shogren says the museum had to take the chance, however. He began work in September 2008 as the Great Recession was putting similar small museums across the country out of business.

The museum had been under pressure to play a larger role leadership role in county cultural affairs for years. Shogren says he had little trouble persuading the board the time was right to grow. He had previously served a director of the Working Waterfront Museum in Tacoma, and as program coordinator for the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Washington County Museum Executive Director Sam Shogren helps unwrap a small part of the scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Washington County Museum is well on the way of achieving its initial fundraising goals, thanks to an anonymous gift of $1.5 million. But it will need to increase its memberships, grants and other fundraising activities now and in future years to fulfill its ambitious agenda.

The public will have its first chance to experience this lofty vision on Nov. 17 when Hubble Space Telescope: New Views of the Universe opens in the new exhibition area. It will be presented in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, which prepared and helps mount the exhibit.

Opening day will include a special 2 p.m. lecture by Russell L. Werneth, an aerospace engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in the City Council Chambers. He was the Extravehicular Activity Manager for the Hubble Space Telescope Project who trained astronauts on telescope repair techniques during spacewalks.

Perfect location

In many ways, the museum has been growing for more than a TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Filling the new display space in the Hillsboro Civic Center will require a bigger annual budget.

Although records are scarce, it probably began in the late 1800s as a collection of historic artifacts maintained by early settler historic groups, such as the Native Sons of Oregon.

Named after the cabins where they met, one Washington County collection began in the John Smith Griffin Cabin before eventually moving to a variety of other locations, including the basement of the county courthouse, a roller skate rink in Shute Park and a private home in Hillsboro.

The Washington County Historical Society was formed in part to preserve the collection in 1956. Thirty years passed, however, however, before Portland Community College partnered with it to build the existing museum building on the Rock Creek Campus.

Four years ago, the board hired Samuel Shorgren as executive directive. With years of experience working at larger museums, he had a visions of expanding the Washington County Museum’s mission and reach. The first task was adopting a Strategic Plan that included securing a larger, easier to reach exhibition space. Many locations throughout the county were considered before the stars aligned to make the space in the Civic Center available.

The large space on the center’s second floor was originally intended to be a new home for the Hillboro Library collection of books and programs in Shute Park. But that plan was canceled when voters rejected the bond measure that would have financed the relocation.

The city looked for a retail another tenant for years without luck. As a result, the space sat unfinished ever since the center was completed.

Then the city offered the museum a deal it couldn’t refuse: free rent for 15 years in exchange for making tenant improvements and paying utilities.

Months of negotiation ensued that were finally completed in August. In addition to the mounting exhibits in the space, the museum will operate a front desk and gift shop on the first floor of the center, and maintain administrative offices across the exhibit space on the second floor.

“The location is perfect. It’s in an urban setting, on a MAX line, and near other cultural attractions,” says Shogren.

The museum also intends to keep its Rock Creek Campus building, completing an extension that is under way. It will become a center for research and the organizations collections.

Assembling Hubble

The Civic Center exhibition space is huge and modern, especially compared to the museum’s Rock Creek Campus quarters. Walls of windows flood the space with light during the day and provide spectacular views of the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza in the front of the center and First Avenue to the north. The vast ceiling is open and painted black, giving it a contemporary, industrial look.

There are no interior walls, presenting both opportunities and challenges for mounting the exhibits.

For the past few weeks, workers have been finishing interior lighting and assembling the exhibits ahead of opening day. The Hubble Space Telescope exhibit is especially complex. Prepared by NASA and the Smithsonian, it arrived in over a dozen large packing crates.

A team of Smithsonian employees came along to assemble it correctly. Major features include a scale model of the telescope that is still in space, large versions of many of the spectacular views it has captured, and actual tools used by astronauts on missions to repair and maintain it.

Museum Curator Adam Mikos admits they had not planned to open the new exhibitions space so soon. But, he says, the Hubble Space Telescope exhibit was available now and might not be again later.

The exhibit runs through May 31, 2012. It is sponsored by the Mentor Graphics Corp. the FEI Co., C.F. Plastics Inc., Henningsen Cold Storage and the Pamplin Media Group, which publishes the Hillsboro Tribune.

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