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Online museum clicks with history students

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Historian Chet Orloff, an adjunct Portland State University professor, curates the online Museum of the City, which brings history exhibits to life. The website also looks at sustainable cities throughout history.Sustainability means different things to different people, and to prominent historian Chet Orloff, it doesn’t only have to do with environmental awareness and carbon footprints.

There are cultures and communities and cities around the world that have stood the test of time, sustaining themselves and oftentimes thriving through the winds of change. It dawned on Orloff that not many folks had examined how communities such as Jericho, which has been around an estimated 11,000 years, evolved and continue to exist in the 21st century, much less modern cities such as New York, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm and, yes, Portland.

Orloff and his students at Portland State University established the website Museum of the City (museumofthecity.org) in 2010 to document the why and how of sustainability of cities.

“A Virtual International Museum of Cities,” it is a partnership between PSU and the 200-member international committee of city museums that Orloff helped organize worldwide.

“I’m attracted to the idea that this is a museum about a 12,000-year-old artifact — a city,” he says. “What makes cities and sustains cities? Why, worldwide, do they vary in so many ways?”

The idea of a virtual city museum was conceived in 2002, Orloff says, and the virtual part has been a work-in-progress for several years.

The website contains links to various galleries or subjects, such as architecture, culture, industry, planning and urban design. It often touches directly on sustainability, with stories such as “Ancient to Present Sustainability, Edo Period Japan: A Model of Ecological Sustainability” — a story about Tokyo.

There are 21 categories examined, actually, but it could be 210. Much of the content is student research papers, and Orloff and his students have plenty more material.

“It’s only a fraction of what we have,” he says. “We have continued to change and evolve the site and the focus of the exhibits. We have moved toward the concept of looking at urban sustainability.”

The website, which works with PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, attracts several thousand visitors each month, including clicks from 60 different countries.

An adjunct professor in Urban Studies and Planning at PSU, Orloff serves as president and director of the Museum of the City. He’s also an adjunct professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Oregon; principal of Oregon History Works; director emeritus at the Oregon Historical Society; and manager of the Pamplin International Collection of Art and History, (owned by Pamplin Media Group owner Robert Pamplin Jr. and his wife).

Orloff has long thought about the sustainability of cities, and saw a void in that field. Clearly, virtually was the only way to go to display information, something people could access from anywhere.

Though it’s a virtual museum, it’s something Portland State can call its own.

About 60 PSU students work on the website’s content. Recently, they toured the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Historical Society to experience real museums.

“We’ll have a new batch (of students) in the spring, creating another 70 exhibits,” Orloff says. “The challenge will be not getting exhibits, but refining them. We’re adding galleries every few months.”

The website features some Portland content, including a story in the health section titled “Pedestrian Friendly Portland and Health.” Another story examines urban wetlands around the city.

Orloff has been involved in Portland planning and development for about 40 years.

He says many of the most sustainable cities are found in northern European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands — small countries in ecologically sound areas of the world where people take pride in their cities and, again, where “there’s a very strong relationship between the public realm and government bureaucracy and private sector.” Cities such as Stockholm and Goteborg in Sweden top Orloff’s list.

“Elemental to good sustainability is having a population that wants to stay there, that feels a great sense of place with their city and are going to stick with it, work in it and for it,” Orloff says.

Orloff says he and his students want to continue to expand the Museum of the City. It is the Internet, after all, with infinite space to post whatever material they can gather.

“You’ll have this continually growing collection of knowledge, research and writing of cities,” he says.