“Oregon was on the edge. Would rock ’n’ roll save it?”
The question — offered up in a cartoon video game that recreates 1970’s Vortex I, the one-of-a-kind, state-sponsored, anti-war rock festival — is one of the cheekier ones posed in the Oregon Historical Society’s new, $4-million “Experience Oregon” exhibit.
The ambitious, 7,000-square-foot permanent installation opens Thursday, Oregon’s 160th birthday. It replaces the beloved “Oregon, My Oregon” exhibit, which had a 14-year run at the museum before closing last year.
“Oregon, My Oregon” ably served its purpose, said OHS executive director Kerry Tymchuk, but “it was tired.” He added, with a smile: “You may have noticed that technology has improved in the past 15 years. ‘Oregon, My Oregon’ had no interactive [component].”
The new “Experience Oregon,” on the other hand, embraces high-tech, with kid-friendly games about not only Oregon’s version of Woodstock but also such little-known historical personages as African-American rodeo star George Fletcher and intrepid 19th-century Native American explorer Marie Dorion.
Be aware: These are not interactive toys for Oregonians who want only happy history for their children. In the Fletcher game, a player can help the talented cowboy win the Pendleton Round-Up — only to discover that, even though Fletcher ends up with the highest score, he is forced to accept second place. So it went for Fletcher in 1911, when he was widely viewed as the best rider in the bucking finals but the judge wasn’t willing to award the top prize to a black man.
The Dorion game, meanwhile, offers an even starker history lesson: If you don’t choose the correct route when you come to the fork in the uncharted road, your expedition might end with a pile of corpses and the startling statement: “Illness decimates your entire expedition.”
Why showcase such harsh outcomes for the waves of schoolchildren who will visit the expansive exhibit?
“We’re not the tourism bureau,” Tymchuk pointed out. “History has good, bad and ugly. We tell it frankly.”
“Experience Oregon” does exactly that — and, to be clear, there’s a lot of inspiring, big-hearted history told here too.
The exhibition begins with a large-screen video presentation narrated by former long-time KGW anchor Tracy Barry. “How do we understand the story of this place?” Barry asks visitors.
That’s not an easy query to answer, and “Experience Oregon” takes a multilayered approach to the problem. There are memorable photographs and large pull-out quotes for those who want to walk quickly through the exhibit, skimming for the historical highlights. And there are video presentations, interactive “feedback stations,” maps and detailed text boards for anyone who is inclined to hunker down and really dig into the meaning of it all.
Among the exhibition’s innovative features are what museum director Helen Louise calls “‘Across Time’ zones”: displays that stress specific historical events — and then link them to present-day issues. “We want to show [children] how history is relevant today,” she said.
“Experience Oregon” will regularly host school groups, but it’s clearly not just for children. While the kids surely will embrace the digital diversions, it’s the artifacts that will most appeal to old-school history lovers.
The first one a visitor comes upon is a 9,000-year-old pair of sandals found in south-central Oregon, a stunning reminder of just how far back human history in the region goes.
There are everyday items saved from Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s iconic 1804-06 Corps of Discovery expedition (including a whale jawbone believed to be inscribed by Lewis); an actual covered wagon from the Oregon Trail days (one of the few holdovers from “Oregon, My Oregon”); the small typewriter used by Lola Baldwin, Portland’s pioneering female police officer; and a red-white-and-blue women’s welder’s mask, worn during World War II by a worker at the Kaiser Shipyards.
There’s even a gleaming 115-year-old car, with a four-cylinder engine and wheels with wooden spokes. Built by Nils Benson and James Chance in Benson’s Portland shop on Grand Avenue, it was heralded for decades as “the first and only car made in Oregon.” It was neither of those, but its creation in 1904 earned deserved attention at the time, and it was displayed at the Lewis and Clark Exposition the following year.
The exhibit also includes a century-old “oceangoing canoe,” a chilling Ku Klux Klan hood (the racist organization wielded significant political power in Oregon in the 1920s) and a celebration of the Trail Blazers’ 1977 NBA championship. The list goes on and on.
OK, so there’s a lot to process in “Experience Oregon.” But we know what you’ve been wondering since you started reading this:
Did rock ’n’ roll save Oregon?
That, like so much of our history, is debatable. In May 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of unarmed college students during a large-scale antiwar protest at Kent State, killing four and wounding more. Oregon Gov. Tom McCall feared something similar could happen during protests of President Richard Nixon’s planned September visit to Portland, and so he backed a coinciding rock festival – nicknamed “The Governor’s Pot Party” — in Milo McIver State Park.
As it turned out, Nixon canceled his Rose City event at the 11th hour — but the music festival went on. The widely covered rock ’n’ roll extravaganza effectively served as a national advertisement for both Oregon and the power of good vibes.
The grand opening of “Experience Oregon,” along with the historical society’s statehood-day celebration, takes place at noon Thursday, February 14. Admission to “Experience Oregon” is free all day and through the weekend. The Oregon Historical Society is located at 1200 SW Park Avenue in Portland.
— Douglas Perry
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