Oregon My Oregon

By Beckham, Stephen Dow | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Oregon My Oregon


Beckham, Stephen Dow, Oregon Historical Quarterly


   The heritage of a culture is the cement that glues a society
   together. The past can inform the present. Knowing where we
   have been can help us chart where we want to go.

   --Oregon My Oregon (2004)

OREGON CAME ONTO THE WORLD STAGE filled with potential. It gained poetic confirmation in 1817 in the phrase "Where rolls the Oregon," crafted in William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis." Its sound quickened the land hunger of settlers who set out across the plains in the 1840s, some of them with canvas covers on their wagons bearing the words "Oregon or Bust" and "Oregon or the Grave." The quest for sovereignty in the Oregon Country became a major objective of President James Knox Polk and inspired him to terminate the joint occupancy agreement in 1845 and to resolve matters with Great Britain in the Oregon Treaty of 1846. The word Oregon possessed a magic that described a region, then a territory, and finally, in 1859, a state.

In July 2004, the Oregon Historical Society opens Oregon My Oregon. Conceived through the input of dozens of volunteers and staff over the past decade, the exhibit occupies the entire second floor of the Society's main building. The content has emerged from the suggestions of focus groups and exhibit consultants and--most importantly--from a century of collecting the material culture, oral traditions, and historical narratives of the Oregon Country. The Society has tapped its premier library and museum for the artifacts and stories that document the human experience in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon My Oregon is founded on several objectives. First, the exhibit places the history of the state in a regional, national, and--at times --international context. Some events in the Oregon Country were initiated far from the shores of the North Pacific. Second, the exhibit affirms the pluralism of cultures and society in Oregon. The coverage speaks to the situation of the poor as well as the rich, laborers and captains of industry, and immigrants as well as Native Americans. Third is the geographical: images, objects, and stories drawn from many parts of the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit has sought inclusion, not exclusion, diversity, not commonality. Fourth, Oregon My Oregon stresses the importance of cause-and-effect relationships. Thus, while topical, the exhibit also has a strong chronology and seeks to develop a sense of history.

This exhibit lifts up encounters, which have been multiple over the past two centuries. There are encounters with Native Americans whose ancestors for more than twelve thousand years were the first Oregonians. There are encounters with a powerful landscape of mountains, deserts, valleys, and seashore. For some, the Oregon Country has inspired essays, poetry, novels, paintings, sculpture, and music. For many, the encounter has been in the hard labor of tapping natural resources: fishing and packing salmon, mining and processing ores, plowing and sowing crops, pruning and harvesting fruit, felling and turning trees into lumber, or riding the range and marketing cattle, horses, and sheep. The exhibit is thus concerned with personal encounters with the land and the economic consequences of developing natural resources.

The exhibit also seeks to convey the growing understanding in Oregon of the importance of stewardship. As the Oregon Historical Society is a steward of the state's and region's past--preserving its material culture and stories--citizens of Oregon have taken pioneering steps in the region and nation to try to preserve a quality of life and an environment much valued. The exhibit thus seeks to have visitors confront issues--many of them unresolved today--and consider the consequences of action and inaction. The exhibit attempts to stimulate the interest of those who view it to deepen understanding, but it does so without espousing a political, environmental, or economic agenda. None of this is easy.

MUCH OF THE MAGIC of Oregon history lies in stories well told. …

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