Sponsored Content

Our Unfinished Past: The Oregon Historical Society at 125

Founded in 1898, the Oregon Historical Society is celebrating 125 years of preserving Oregon history and making it accessible to all.

Presented by Oregon Historical Society May 8, 2023

Assistant curator J.S. Greenfield stands outside of the Oregon Historical Society’s second location at SW 2nd Avenue in Portland. OHS Research Library, OrHi 26021.

Since its founding on December 17, 1898, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) has worked to preserve Oregon’s history and make it accessible to all. In celebration of this milestone, OHS has mounted an original, immersive exhibition to mark its 125th anniversary.

Our Unfinished Past: The Oregon Historical Society at 125 explores the people, events, and ideas that have shaped OHS, reflecting on its complex history and its mission to advance knowledge and inspire curiosity about Oregon history. Through over 100 objects and archival materials from OHS’s collection, this exhibition highlights diverse voices from Oregon’s past.

A visitor looks at a case of objects from OHS’s collection in its cornerstone exhibition, Experience Oregon.

Image: Andie Petkus

“The stories that we pass down and share with one another create a sense of home, belonging, and community,” said Boyle Family Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk. “As I walk through Our Unfinished Past, I feel an immense sense of gratitude to all those who have entrusted their stories to OHS’s care, and an even greater sense of responsibility to ensure that these stories — preserved through the objects, oral histories, diaries, and journals held in our collections — are kept safe so that they can be made accessible for the next 125 years and beyond.”

Assistant curator J.S. Greenfield stands inside the Oregon Historical Society. OHS Research Library, OrHi 20002.

Visitors to Our Unfinished Past will learn about OHS’s origins and how its early collecting practices were shaped and have evolved over twelve decades. By collecting materials from and recording the lives of people throughout the state, OHS has helped document the varied experiences of Oregonians. The question of which stories to prioritize, however, has shifted throughout OHS’s history.

OHS Curator of Exhibitions Megan Lallier-Barron looks at objects from OHS’s collection in the Oregon Vault. Photo by Evan Kierstead.

In an exhibition essay published in the most recent issue of OHS’s journal, the Oregon Historical Quarterly, which is available to read for free online, Curator of Exhibitions Megan Lallier-Barron highlights a case in the forefront of the exhibition that displays Native belongings alongside objects that belonged to pioneers, a visual representation of the nuanced and complicated relationship that early OHS staff and leaders had with collecting Oregon’s history. While collecting Native belongings was a priority at the time of OHS’s founding, the information preserved along with these belongings neglects to include any information about the people who made or used them.

Our Unfinished Past, with the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt in the foreground.

Under the direction of OHS’s first hired executive director, Thomas Vaughan, OHS leadership and staff made concerted efforts to expand the stories they collected and told. One prominent object on display, the Afro-American Heritage Bicentennial Commemorative Quilt, illustrates this shift. The textile dates to 1974, when Jeanette Gates formed a group of fifteen women to sew a quilt honoring the heritage and contributions of the Black community in U.S. history. This work continues in earnest today, with staff committed to developing programs and educational materials, publishing scholarship, and mounting exhibitions that support OHS’s mission to preserve Oregon history and make it accessible as well as its vision of fostering a better tomorrow through an Oregon story that is meaningful to all Oregonians. 

A portion of a 32-foot LEGO model of the St. John’s Bridge that was inspired by architectural plans held in OHS’s research library is on display in Our Unfinished Past.

Other objects, such as a portion of a 32-foot LEGO model of the St. John’s Bridge, show how one individual was inspired to create a remarkable piece of art with architectural plans preserved in OHS’s research library. Researchers from around the world make discoveries every day in OHS’s library collections, and visitors are encouraged in the exhibition to learn how to conduct historical building research through an interactive research table.

The Oregon Historical Society’s museum is open seven days a week, Monday–Saturday 10am–5pm and Sunday 12pm–5pm. Admission is $10, with discounts for students, seniors, teachers, and youth. Admission is free every day for OHS members and Multnomah County residents. Learn more and plan your visit at ohs.org/visit.


Show Comments