History in the Making: BenCo Historical Society’s Museum Plans

Image courtesy of the Benton County Historical Society

When we think of making history, we usually think of someone or something having a big impact on the world. The quiet, careful arts of collecting, cataloging, preserving, and researching by groups like the Benton County Historical Society that underlay the stories we call history can go unnoticed. But, they are important ways of keeping our collective memory alive.

BCHS holds over 100,000 donated artifacts, photographs, and manuscripts. These include early American quilts, a drum and powder horn from the Revolutionary War, and early color films of Oregon. They also have natural history items like taxidermy art, mastodon bones, and the skull of an Oreodont – a species that once grazed through Oregon’s grasslands.

Researchers accessing BCHS’s collections include genealogists and historians, and land-use planners rely on their maps and aerial photos for their own works. Historical fiction like Jane Kirkpatrick’s A Light in the Wilderness and Linda Crew’s Fire on the Wind is also a product of BCHS’s collections.

BCHS began began in 1951 as a preservation society to support researchers. In 1980, they found a home where they could display some of their collection in the Philomath College building. The building, on the National Register of Historic Places, is itself a historical artifact.

A major expansion occured in 2005, when Oregon State University donated its Horner Collection to BCHS. The sudden influx of artifacts forced them to find a new storage space – the $2.2 million Collection Center was built in 2008 to meet the challenge.

“Care of the collections begins at the building level,” Mary Gallagher, Collections Manager told me. “So, this building was designed with collections in mind.” 

Not only does it meet earthquake standards and have strict climate controls, the shelves and walls are finished to avoid any off-gassing that could harm the artifacts. This care goes down to each individual object. All folders and boxes are acid-free, with many of the boxes designed around the specific artifact they hold. 

But it’s also important to get artifacts out of storage and in front of the public. That’s where exhibit curation comes in. Curator of exhibitions, Mark Tolonen, says there is only display space for 250 items at a time, so he is continually creating new exhibits.

Another way BCHS shares its collections is with traveling trunks. Volunteer docents bring trunks with themes like the Oregon Trail to classrooms around the county.

Irene Zenev, executive director of BCHS, is ready to show off even more collections at the planned $9.5 million museum in downtown Corvallis. The new space will allow the Philomath building to focus on being a research center while continuing to house only a few exhibits. 

“A new museum in Corvallis,” Zenev explained, “will enable it to serve many more, introducing students from K-20 to history, science, and art in ways that are far richer in experience than virtual learning. Students will leave the museum energized, excited, and awed by what they have seen.”

Though, this museum isn’t just for students. It serves the community as a whole, allowing citizens to glimpse into the vibrant, intriguing, and inspiring past that is their home.

You can find more about the BCHS and links to their social media at bentoncountymuseum.org.

by Andy Hahn