The desk and typewriter that Tom McCall used during his two terms as governor from 1967-75.

HUDSON AND TYMCHUK’S greatest test may be in how well they fulfill a fourth M of success: meaning. “I don’t think most people in the city have used the institution,” says David Milholland, the longtime president of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, who has watched the society’s slide for decades. “And so the challenge now is to make sure that people get involved with OHS in a palpable way between now and five years from now.”

Thinking smaller might be the key. Northwest Portland’s Oregon Jewish Museum, for instance, has thrived without steady funding, without a curator, and without legislative support. Running on a full-time staff of two, along with four part-time employees and a dedicated army of volunteers, OJM has grown cautiously but consistently for the past two decades, starting in the late 1980s as “museum without walls” with exhibits mounted in libraries and galleries. By December 2009, at the height of the recession, it had enough momentum to move into a newly renovated, 6,900-square-foot converted film screening studio on NW Kearney Street—complete with a 50-person auditorium, research library, and bright exhibition floor. The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center has charted a similar path. Founded in 1989 as a Japanese heritage organization without a physical space, it has spent the last two decades accumulating manuscripts, photographs, and oral histories and producing events. It now has a staff of three part-time employees, including a curator, and an exhibition space on NW Second Avenue in former Japantown.

Elsewhere, larger history museums have survived and even thrived, in spite of the recession. The Colorado Historical Society (recently rebranded as “History Colorado”) will open a new $111 million building next year, thanks not only to prudent expansion but also to an aggressive public programming effort, including last year’s installation at Denver International Airport, which stretched between two concourses and was seen by more than a million travelers. Although Montana’s historical society absorbed budget cuts of 5 percent, its entrepreneurial savvy has enabled it to maintain and even expand its programing, from publishing the 10,000-circulation Montana: The Magazine of Western History to inventing a curriculum to teach other local museums how to curate and display American Indian artifacts.

The trick in each case, large and small, has been meaningful programming and collecting, but most of all it’s been synergy—finding, collaborating, and cross-fertilizing with audiences, whether by appealing to ethnic niches looking to understand their cultural past, by bringing history to the idling masses in a major hub airport, or by connecting with other nonhistory audiences.

Body Wagon 2

Wagons like this were used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to transport corpses from the place of death to the embalming table.

One of OJM’s recent exhibits, for instance, a celebration of the life and work of Swiss-born Oregon composer Ernest Bloch, brought the popular Third Angle Ensemble to its auditorium for three sold-out shows of Bloch’s compositions.

History Pub, in fact, offers the best start. It currently is OHS’s most popular program, yet one it didn’t start and that costs the institution nothing. Imagine infusing that same small-scale, inventive, and deeply focused—but free-form—spirit into everything it does, telling the history behind Portland’s chart-topping bands or its internationally renowned food scene.

A Salem Landmark Legislation exhibit is a perfectly fine way to celebrate Oregon (even if a rather obvious stroking of lawmakers controlling the fate of OHS’s budget). But inside the Oregon vault hide many objects and stories that could reenergize OHS’s wider audience: the Banfield Expressway that transformed the face of Northeast Portland forever; the horse-drawn hearse as a window onto how Oregonians have dealt with death and dying; the Trojan nuclear plant that not only came within a pipe-leak of catastrophic failure but launched a thousand careers in political and environmental activism.

“Oregon’s always done things differently,” says author Love.

“If they go stodgy,” he adds, “they’re gonna lose.”