The Benton County Museum was finally able to open its doors to the public this past Friday, despite the fact that the museum had been fully constructed and ready to welcome visitors almost a full year ago. The long-anticipated opening seems to be worth the wait, as the sparkling new building and its unique exhibits have been 12 years in the making.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and public safety guidelines, only six visitors were allowed in one-hour intervals into the museum at a time. When asked how the opening day went, Executive Director of the Benton County Historical Society, Irene Zenev, replied, “Very, very well. People really enjoyed it.”
Zenev noted that there are numerous interactive components throughout the museum that were popular with children that visited on opening day. These interactive pieces include wall panels and artwork that can be pulled or opened to reveal historical photographs and educational information.
The Benton County Historical Society has thousands of antiques, donations, and artifacts, and when designing potential displays for the museum, Zenev wondered, “What stories can they tell? The stories and histories are important.”
One exhibit Zenev is particularly proud of is its eclectic but historically significant Hats and Chairs exhibit. The exhibit is exactly as described; a collection of chairs and hats. But beyond the initial quirkiness is eras of history and a surprising visual representation of Benton County’s cultural evolution. Different chairs – not all of which are typical, there is one unicycle – are paired with headwear that was common for that time period, and stories are told from the combinations. The room is a showcase of how rapidly change can occur in both culture and design.
The Benton County exhibit is another collection that highlights the depth of change our area has experienced since its founding. This room is unique in that it is organized geographically, with representations of the Willamette River and nearby mountains painted on the floor, and displays of artifacts from different towns in the region found in their geographic location throughout the room. While many of the items shown in this exhibit are noteworthy and fascinating, subjectively one of the most interesting pieces is the white mountain goat disguise that William L. Finley wore during trips to the mountains in attempts to get close-up wildlife photos of actual mountain goats.
“We are trying to break the stereotype of history museums,” Zenev said. “Items can be appreciated as art.”
This idea runs throughout the entire museum, from the stunning interior design of the new building to the displays in all four exhibits. Currently, while admittance is limited to only six people per hour, Zenev is hopeful that soon Benton County will move out of the extreme COVID risk category and into the high risk category, which eases some restrictions on businesses. At that point, the museum will be able to admit up to 25% of their capacity, or 24 people, in one-hour intervals.