An unvarnished look at state history
The most important permanent exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society — the history of our state, "Experience Oregon" — opens Thursday, Feb. 14, Oregon's 160th birthday, with much fanfare.
Throughout the 7,000 square feet of exhibition space, the display pays tribute to first-inhabitant Native Americans, maybe the most crucial aspect organizers want to relate to visitors.
"We have a close relationship with nine tribes in Oregon to make sure we're telling their story correctly," says Kerry Tymchuk, OHS executive director.
Indeed, it's not just about white people who traversed the Oregon Trail and settled on the land once explored by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
"We work closely with every ethnic population in Oregon," Tymchuk says. "We want all Oregonians to find their story in the exhibit. Our job at the Oregon Historical Society is not to be the tourism bureau, we're here to tell the good, bad and ugly of Oregon, and there's been an ugly history in Oregon with relationship with minorities. We don't varnish the story, it's told accurately."
Taking three years to develop and at a cost of $4 million — raised from private parties — the exhibition on the third floor at OHS, 1200 S.W. Park Ave., replaces the old "Oregon My Oregon." It's been updated with technology and 21st century research and interpretation to tell the stories of people, places and events. It's a huge exhibit, full of enough information to keep a visitor entertained for hours.
Along with OHS staff, trustees and volunteers and Oregon tribes, several other people contributed to the exhibit — educators, content specialists, historians, community members and design firms.
"The design process for 'Experience Oregon' was truly cutting-edge, and is one of the aspects that makes this exhibition so unique," says Helen B. Louise, museum director.
Through artifacts, images and interactive displays, "Experience Oregon" takes visitors through a chronological history of the state, starting with geology and Native Americans. A 130-degree movie about Oregon introduces the exhibit and its themes.
Interesting artifacts include a "spider" (cooking kettle), a "housewife" (sewing kit), Fort Rock sandals from southeastern Oregon dating to 7,000 B.C., an original Conestoga wagon and a replica for kids to play in, a car built in Oregon (Benson, by Nils Benson in 1904) and a Chinook-style Scarborough canoe.
The exhibit tells the stories of minorities, World War I and World II, and timber, agriculture and themes of land and water. In addition, a lighted "river" flows through part of the exhibit.
Scores of photographs highlight the history and beauty of the state.
Some exhibit stations ("Across Time") compare and contrast the past, present and future. Other interactive stations include a "Stories from the Archives" tablet game, role-playing games for historical debate, listening wands to hear voices from the past,and opportunities to provide ideas and opinions. Visitors can make their own digital memory blanket with photographs upon finishing the tour.
Tymchuk was raised in Reedsport, attended Willamette University in Salem, and worked for Elizabeth Dole, Bob Dole and Gordon Smith in Washington, D.C. He has been with OHS for eight years and brings a unique perspective on the state.
"The story is Oregon's always trying to better," he says. "No doubt there were many mistakes made along the way. It's always been a state of second chances and opportunities, always working to improve.
"And, it's the state of many 'firsts' — first to have a bottle bill and protect beaches, first to do vote-by-mail. Oregonians have always been big on innovation."
The Oregon Historical Society expects visitors from around the world to enjoy "Experience Oregon." It's free to everybody Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 14-18. Multnomah County residents get free admission at any time.
The Thursday activities start with a blessing led by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde at 11 a.m. and a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon; there'll be birthday cake and music from the Oregon Oldtime Fiddlers.
A family day takes place from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
"It's one of the best things we've done," Tymchuk says. "It's a permanent exhibit that'll hopefully last 15 to 20 years. This'll be the one that all school groups go through, as well as tourists, visitors. It's our showcase exhibit. It'll clearly be the draw."
But it'll need to be updated eventually. Time moves on. Technology changes everything.
In a few decades, perhaps, "it'll all be holograms," Tymchuk says.
For more: www.ohs.org.
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