Oregon history: just a thing of the past?

By Bob Hicks

You can order popular images online at the OHS web site.It’s not often we call attention to a front-page newspaper story — after all, it’s right there on the front page; how could you miss it? — but today we’re doing just that. If you haven’t looked at it yet, please read Still Stuck in the Past, D.K. Row’s front-page story in today’s Oregonian about the continuing woes at the Oregon Historical Society in spite of the five-year levy that Multnomah County voters recently passed to help bail the place out.

This is no hatchet job. D.K.’s story is well-balanced and gives a good insight into the complex issues that have been hurting the society and its museum for years. In a way, OHS offers a disconcerting peek into the future of all sorts of public institutions, from schools to police and street departments, if the tax-revolt and “privatization” bandwagons continue unchecked. If you starve an institution long enough, it starts to make blunders and lose track of what it is and what it’s supposed to be doing.

Certainly the state’s now-you-see-it-but-mostly-you-don’t approach to funding has been a huge contributor to the historical society’s troubles. But the place has also had structural, managerial problems for years, to a certain extent since its glory days under its legendary leader Tom Vaughan.

Vaughan knew everybody, charmed everybody, got people excited about the society in a way that no one has since — and maybe that’s been part of the problem. He ran the place not so much by building a strong organizational structure as through  sheer force of personality, and once he left, the fizz went flat. The town, the state, the legislators he had dazzled just sort of stopped paying attention. In a way, people hadn’t been funding the historical society at all: they’d been funding Tom Vaughan.

A ton of mistakes have been made over the years, and not just by museum staff. The press has to take part of the responsibility, too, for letting the situation ride, and I include myself in that. For years when I worked for The Oregonian I knew, vaguely, that things were rocky at OHS. But other stories kept getting in the way, and I kept putting off digging into it. I suspected that once I started digging I’d be up to my eyeballs, and I figured I just couldn’t afford the time to take it on. I tried to get other writers interested, but they faced the same obstacles: too much to do, too little time to get it done. And upper managers tended not to be interested beyond pushing a quick-hit let’s-support-the-historical-society story about a specific exhibit now and again. The trouble is, for years the society wasn’t on anyone’s beat, so it was easy to ignore.

Part of the society’s problem is that some of the least sexy things it does are also the most important, and how do you get the public excited about that? OHS is, probably foremost, a repository of crucial information — the one place where documents and other material relating to the state’s past are housed. As such, it’s essential to scholars and researchers. Or, in more populist terms, (yawn). Still, that’s the way it is: the most important stuff is invisible to the public eye. Try explaining that to a legislator facing a giant budget shortfall and a public eager to jump all over anyone supporting anything that smells like government “waste.”

D.K. has done a good job of laying out the challenges that OHS faces and, to a certain extent, how things ended up this way. Here are a few other points to consider:

  • Death of the Press. When the historical society shut down its publishing arm several years ago, it abandoned what in many ways was its most public face. The books published under its imprint ranged from specialist to populist, but they kept OHS in the public eye and gave it a sense of solidity and importance. I’ve heard arguments that other presses — Oregon State University Press in particular — have picked up a lot of the OHS Press’s functions, so nothing’s really been lost. It’s true, certain books that might otherwise have been published by OHS have found publishers elsewhere. But some undoubtedly haven’t — and crucial relationships with authors and historians have been lost. The society lost control over what is published about the state’s history: It gave up the essential role of setting an agenda, of being the leader in thinking about Oregon’s past and what it means to its future.
  • Heard about that new exhibit? Chances are, no. For years OHS has done a dismal job of getting out the word about itself. And that doesn’t mean just to the public or its own mailing list. It also means letting the press know what’s going on. One early budget cut was to public relations staff, which often meant that, in effect, the museum was putting on shows in a vacuum. Several times when working at the paper I found out about an intriguing-sounding exhibit either after it had closed or shortly before it ended. Yes, that was partly my fault: I wasn’t paying close attention. But newspapers and other media outlets face a barrage of choices for limited time and even more limited space. This is basic. The reality of the information game is that you have to make people aware of what you’re doing. If you don’t do that well, the attention will go to someone who does. (It’s also true that some exhibitions have been poorly conceived or generic, without a lot of specificity to Oregon. That’s a separate issue, and also important to address.)
  • Just folks. Some of the society’s most interesting work in recent years has revolved around its folk life program, which has identified and spotlighted the work of craft artists ranging from traditional saddlemakers to tribal basketmakers and outstanding practitioners of disappearing musical traditions. The society also has a school program that traces Mexican cultural roots in Oregon. Again, chances are you haven’t heard much about these programs, which are far from fusty. The message is: the past is present; we live with it every day. But it’s being broadcast in a vacuum.
  • Didn’t the museum have a shop? Surprise: It still does. It’s just that it’s in the lobby, shrunk down and de-emphasized, after years in its high-profile location on Southwest Broadway between Higgins Restaurant and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. That location was like a great big billboard for the society, noticed by hundreds of people every day. Furthermore, it was an attractive storefront, with big display windows that gave a sense of something festive and maybe even exciting going on inside. No doubt it made money for the society. More important, it made the society matter in people’s minds. I don’t know the financial realities of running the shop in that space; maybe moving it out was the only prudent thing to do. Still, something important was lost. You simply can’t shut yourself away from the public and expect the public to care what happens to you.

D.K.’s story in The Oregonian suggests that big changes may be coming under the leadership of new director Kerry Tymchuk, who arrives in April without a background in history or museums but with a reputation as a politically connected guy who knows who to talk to and isn’t afraid to get things done. If people are looking on Tymchuck as a savior, they should do so cautiously. It takes more than one person, and it will be crucial that when he’s making decisions he consult honestly and regularly with people who are experienced museum professionals. You can harm an institution by not understanding it, too. But you get a sense that OHS has become so stuck in its wagon wheel tracks that it very much needs a fresh, decisive outside force to get it moving again. At the same time, it makes sense that the organization is on a kind of unofficial probation, and the watchdog group put together by county chairman Jeff Cogen is a good idea, so long as it actually meets and does something. It’s also very hopeful that the society board members who spoke with D.K. were so blunt and forthcoming in their assessments.

Nothing less than a reinvention is needed here. The society needs to reaffirm its crucial academic and research role at the same time that it reconnects with the public and figures out how to be a smart, appealing museum that people want to visit when they’re not on a school field trip or grudgingly doing their civic duty. The world has shifted, and cultural organizations no longer get support merely from a sense of civic pride. They have to prove their worth. In the United States, inevitably, they are in constant competition. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Yes, the constant struggle can warp a group’s sense of purpose, so that its image and financial success become more important than what it originally set out to be. But it can also keep a group on its toes, sharpen its focus, make it smarter and more adaptive, help it assess what’s working and what isn’t. Art museums have shown that you can be populist and rigorous at the same time. History might be a tougher sell. But selling, for better and for worse, is a huge part of what the historical society has to do.

Stay tuned. The past can be a fascinating country.