Window on the Past Reopens

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), February 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Window on the Past Reopens


Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

In a way, the reopening of the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History is a case of the present catching up with the past.

Never mind that the museum's new exhibit is called "Oregon - Where Past is Present." What's really historic is that the campus gallery is finally living up to the potential it had when the building opened in 1987 with hand-me-down displays a generation or two behind the times.

But after a yearlong, $1 million makeover, the doors open Friday on a museum that finally is everything director Mel Aikens thought it would be 17 years ago.

"This has been a long time coming," Aikens said as he watched the finishing touches being put on the sleek new displays.

That's something of an understatement, considering that the hall spotlights 200 million years of geology and 15,000 years of human history in a space about the size of a large house. That it all fits and tells a good story to boot is what the remodel was all about.

And while geologic history packs in far more years, it is human history that gets the most attention in the rejuvenated hall. The main feature is a kind of pathway through time, taking visitors on a tour of the region's four primary geographic regions - the Great Basin, the Columbia Plateau, the coast and western valleys.

Each region is featured in a diorama that displays key cultural artifacts, backlit by sweeping panoramic murals that depict the countryside of each region at different points in time. It's not a linear walk through time or season - both vary with the different exhibits - but each presents both the ancient geography and the first peoples' place in it.

"It feels like you've got a window onto those environments," said Patty Krier, the museum's director of programs. "Each mural pulls you back in."

Mural artist Don Prechtel said he visited the regions to get the feel of them before working with the museum staff on different ideas and mock-ups. And he and the museum also worked closely with the area's American Indian tribes to accurately depict life before Lewis and Clark.

Tribal members even helped build some of the main exhibits, such as a traditional cedar-plank house made by Don Day of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and a traditional wikiup made by Minerva Soucie of the Burns Paiute community. Both were made using traditional materials and methods.

It seems that no museum is ever totally finished by the time the doors open, and this is no exception. A series of state-of-the-art display cases that will trace the history of Native peoples through basketry and textile arts won't be ready for a few weeks. …

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