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Find a better way to share states history

My View • Oregon Historical Society's problem isn't just money - it's trust
by: L.E. BASKOW, Happy Valley Elementary School students tour the “Oregon My Oregon” exhibit at the Oregon History Museum. Thousands of  students visit the cash-strapped downtown Portland museum each year.

Trust sits at the heart of the issues of the Oregon Historical Society.

The museum holds objects in trust for you. The library holds materials in trust for you. This is Oregon, yours and mine. It is a shared history, not a lecture or a footnote, but a history that belongs to you.

We are all historians. Do you need proof? If you've taken a picture of something, then you are a documentary historian. If you have something passed down in your family, such as a railroad pocket watch, then you have an artifact of family history. It's that simple, and that complex.

Multiply your artifacts and photographs by the number of people in your building, on your street, in your town, in your state. Add all the people and their gear from the beginning of recorded time. In the first example, you have a horizontal sample of stuff from people living today; in the second, you have a vertical collection from year zero. In either case, it's a lot of stuff.

From ohs.org, the Oregon Historical Society's mission is 'preserving and interpreting Oregon's past in thoughtful, illuminating, and provocative ways.'

As mission statements go, OHS covers the bases. It is thoughtful to exhibit the treasures of Oregon history for all to see. It is illuminating to learn how Oregon fits in with the other 49 states and the bigger world. It is provocative to learn the parts of Oregon history that rarely see the light of day.

But is it enough?

On the surface, the numbers included in Steve Law's story 'Cash-strapped society explores history tax' (March 25), paint a dreary picture of the economic times we live in. The Oregon Historical Society has 31 staff members, but there's 'no longer a museum curator to oversee collections. There's nobody on staff to produce museum exhibits. The in-house historian is gone. So is the society's book-publishing arm, which once produced several Oregon history titles a year.'

A glance at the staff page for OHS shows six 'directors,' one 'editor' and a library manager. This is where the public doubt begins, where the questions arise.

• Is the Oregon Historical Society a museum and library, or a real estate company? What's more important, a facilities director or a library director?

• Who do you expect to find in a museum, a collections curator or a director of public services?

• When a statewide newspaper runs a story on how to research your house, but excludes Oregon Historical Society as a prime resource because of a disconnect between the paper and the museum, who suffers?

Sometime between aiming tax money toward Oregon Historical Society and a staged shutdown, why not define what you want from a history museum? Go back to your treasures, your photographs and objects. Do you keep similar things together? If you are married or have a partner, do you mix all the stuff together or keep them in two separate piles?

These questions guide the home historians and the professionals, minus the infighting and backstabbing of career-climbing history transients.

What is the difference between the heydays of the mid-1980s and 2010? Enthusiasm. One director held sway over department heads in the museum, library and press in the 1980s. It was a time when someone who wanted work they could only do in Oregon got hired without a master's degree, or a bachelor's.

I started at Oregon Historical Society in 1982 as a museum guard for a show called Soft Gold. It was a six-month contract. For 19 years I was the only one on staff who had actually worked in a fishery and a sawmill - a benefit from growing up in North Bend.

Oregon Historical Society helped me get a history degree. I earned the job title of 'collections manager,' which sounds nice but really meant surveying the museum holding for rot and building better storage systems. It was a blue-collar job in a lace-and-doily environment, but it fit the times.

As the times changed so did OHS, with one upgrade after another. The downtown building expanded, new staff with advanced degrees replaced those with field experience. A national search brought in a rising star in the history museum galaxy to replace the single director who put OHS on the map.

The 'heydays' became the 'what?' days. What happened to loyalty? What happened to trust? Like always, time moved on with or without answers. So did the rising star. The needs of history continued.

One important point I learned from talking to folks donating family treasures to OHS is Oregonians don't like outsiders telling them their history. Even worse is the outsider who quotes textbooks when asked a question.

Oregon people like to know who was here before them. They like to know how much of Oregon they share with their ancestors. Oregon blood runs through today's Oregonians the same as it did the loggers and fishermen and farmers who settled here; the same as it does through the natives who were first on the land. They know certain parts of their history. The job of the Oregon Historical Society is connecting the dots.

When you vote for an extra tax, or write a donation check, ask yourself if you know your place as well as you want to know it; ask if those you give money to understand what you want in return. You might not remember what you learned from a museum visit. You might not remember the names and dates. But you will remember how you felt while you were there.

Make a statement for your history. Professors and museum experts make a living telling you about history. Their history isn't the same as your history; yours is more important. Finding a better way of sharing Oregon history, your history, is the challenge. It's not about pointing fingers or opening the financial books at Oregon Historical Society; it's not about poor decisions or bad hiring practices.

It is about trust. It's about you.

David Gillaspie is a writerliving in Tigard.