Field Trip: Oregon Historical Society

Step back in time at the Oregon Historical Society’s new  “Experience Oregon” exhibit.

When I picked up my fourth grader, Noah, age 9, early from school recently to go on a “special” outing he was beyond thrilled. That is until I told him where we were going: the Oregon Historical Society’s new Experience Oregon exhibit.

“Really, Mom? A museum?” he questioned, clearly disappointed. “I was thinking laser tag or paintball. I experience Oregon every day!”


So it was with a decidedly unenthused boy, who had been bribed with a post-museum treat, that I arrived at the museum on the eve of the new Experience Oregon exhibit’s debut, which appropriately enough was scheduled for Valentine’s Day 2019, otherwise known as Oregon’s 160th birthday.

Within seconds of stepping into the brand-new, 11,000-square foot, open-design space, three years in the making, his skepticism slipped away. His eyes brightened as he let go of my hand and made a beeline to the huge, incredibly lifelike model of a tree holding court near the entrance. “Wow,” Noah said, crouching down, immediately reaching out his fingers toward the wide, bumpy trunk, as he peered up at the canopy of branches above. “Can I touch it?” The answer, happily, was “Yes!” since the new exhibit is very interactive and totally kid-friendly.

The centerpiece tree will resonate with locals for a reason. Its bark was cast from the trees in Washington Park and is emblematic of the curators’ effort to imbue the visitor experience with not just the relevant facts, dates and artifacts, but with the power and pull of the natural world as well. This painstaking attention to detail is evident throughout the exhibit, which is geared toward ages 8 and up, and celebrates, educates and questions about all things Oregon.

Right away, Noah noticed the thoughtful inclusivity and collaborative vision of the curators. “I learned about these tribes at school,” he noted, when he spied a sign about the “People of the Plateau, High Desert and Great Basin.” The new Oregon Trail curriculum, which doesn’t shy away from the hard truths about the Western migration and its negative impact on Native peoples, was evident everywhere we looked: “I’m glad they’re telling about the Native American story too, not just the white settlers,” he said. What’s most impressive is that every story, even that of each visitor, has a place in this exhibit, which at its start asks the question, “What is your Oregon experience?”

Visitors will find a tapestry of information on everything from the state’s waterways, resources and land, to the experiences of women, African Americans, Chinese and Native Americans, along with the more familiar accounts of powerful white men. “We tell it all, very frankly,” explains Museum Director Helen Louise. “We looked for new ways to highlight relevance across time to help people understand that history matters and informs how we live today.”


Evocative questions, such as “Who can live here?” and “Why did Euro-American explorers believe they ‘discovered’ a place where people were already living?” pepper the walls as visitors journey through Oregon over time and themes, such water, land, building communities and home. A blue river is painted on the floor, giving context for such treasures as ‘Scarborough,’ a remarkable cedar canoe that’s more than 100 years old.

Noah’s favorite parts were the interactive, often tactile or other sensory elements, particularly running his hands over the topographical state map, petting a carved wooden beaver, walking through a replica covered wagon, feeling a real beaver pelt and sniffing Oregon scents, including salmon, wheat and hops. “This is cool,” he said, “I never knew Oregon had so many smells.”

Except for the items behind glass or other barriers, much of the exhibit is indeed touchable — the rock wall in the 130-degree theater, thunder eggs, trees, a canoe cutout, a paddle, plants and more. The items behind glass are just as alluring, from the turn-of-the-century, Oregon-made gown and automobile to intricately beaded costumes and fishing equipment.

“Stories from the Archives” stations also caught his eye, especially the clever, interactive games. In one inspired by the true, 2,000-mile journey of a pregnant Marie Dorion and her children to Fort Astoria, players attempt to take a group of pioneers along the Oregon Trail without leading them all to their deaths. This is harder, and sillier, than it sounds and joyfully brings home the reality of this often perilous trek. Another lets you compete as George Fletcher, the first African American cowboy in the Pendleton Round Up. Fun, right? Until you discover that no matter how well you do, even if Fletcher wins, as he did in real life, the best he can finish as a black man is second place.

Noah loved that the majority of the objects, such as beaded moccasins and the iconic canoe, were “original” as opposed to copies. I loved that Experience Oregon offers so many different ways to connect, from sensory elements to role-playing games, and, especially, that everything my son saw sparked question after question. Many of these were answered by going deeper in the exhibit, but all invited more conversation and questioning that we could take home with us. No wonder he’s already asking when we can make a return trip — no bribe needed.

Oregon Historical Society: 1200 SW Park Ave. Monday-Saturday,
10 am-5 pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm.

INCLUSIVE + ADAPTIVE:  The exhibit is wheelchair accessible and while they don’t have specific sensory-friendly times, it is generally less crowded than other local museums, which is good for kids who can get overwhelmed by crowds and noise. Additionally there are five listening stations, artifact labels with raised-letter text and headphones that can turn touch-screen prompts into voice commands.

COST: Always free for Multnomah County residents. All others: $10 Adults, $8 Seniors, $5 Youth.

PRO TIP: Experience Oregon is designed to engage third graders and above. For younger visitors, check out OHS’s History Hub exhibit, which was curated with preschool and early-elementary-aged children in mind.

Sarah Vanbuskirk is a Portland-based writer and mother of 5 kids, Violet, 15, Charlie, 14, Hank, 11, Noah, 9, and Walter, 7, who is currently writing a memoir. Her December 2017 PDX Parent story, “Winter Adventures, A to Z,” won a Parenting Media Association Silver Award for Travel Writing.

Sarah Vanbuskirk
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