INSIDE THE BABY-BLUE warehouse in a dreary suburban Portland industrial zone, the ambience is dark, quiet, and chilly as a tomb. But George Vogt, 66, the soft-spoken, bespectacled, soon-departing director of the Oregon Historical Society, looks like a book-rich man at home in his library, strolling through the two climate-controlled acres of shelves, drawers, and crates, stopping every few steps among the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, maps, papers, and artifacts.
With genuine enthusiasm checked against an academic’s fear of overstatement, he singles out for our consideration a priceless Native American basket woven so tightly it can hold water, the box office from the 1911 Fox Theatre, a ’40s-era tuna canning machine, a grim-looking horse-drawn hearse, and a gym-sized architectural model of the Banfield Expressway (now Interstate 84).
“And can you guess what this is?” Vogt asks with an expectant twinkle in his eye, stopping in front of a 10-foot-tall mint-green wall of colored buttons and lights that—except for the fact that it’s solid steel—resembles a prop pilfered from a 1950s science fiction movie set. “It’s a control panel from Trojan,” he says, referring to Oregon’s only nuclear power plant, which was decommissioned in 1993 and demolished in 2006.
This is the Oregon Historical Society’s secret storage warehouse, or what Vogt prefers to call the “Oregon Vault.” More than 90 percent of the institution’s holdings are stored here—some 85,000 artifacts, 3 million photographs, 25,000 maps, and countless manuscripts and films, each cataloged, labeled, and neatly arranged by a staff that once numbered over 100 but has dwindled to 34. Vogt jokes that the 100,000-square-foot storage facility resembles the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark—priceless historical treasures stacked in endless, identical rows of wooden crates. The comparison may be more apt than he intends: After more than 20 years of public ambivalence, failed leadership, and a steady loss of intellectual brainpower, few of these artifacts have ever seen the light of day—other than the occasional appearance in an OPB documentary or the notes of a lone researcher. And unless the institution’s fortunes change fast, they may stay hidden forever.
OHS, the only private state historical society in the West, boasts one of the largest libraries and archives on the Pacific Coast yet has not had a staff exhibit curator since 1998. It is no longer actively seeking new materials. (The last collections curator departed in 2004.) The most recent major exhibit to pass through its doors left in 2003. Last August, a team from the American Association of Museums deferred reaccreditation until the society develops a new strategic plan, noting that “the museum appears to be in survival mode.” Indeed, when Multnomah County voters threw the institution a $10 million lifeline in November, the society was at the verge of turning off the lights for good. This month, one of the state’s most connected political operatives, Kerry Tymchuck, replaces Vogt as interim executive director, backed by a new board president, Jerry Hudson, known for his turnaround of a financially ailing Willamette University during the 1980s.
But even with new money and leadership, OHS faces a much more profound question than whether it can merely survive: can the society find an audience?