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'This IS Kalapuyan Land': Museum in Oregon has local communities tell their own story
Judy Woodruff: Many museums, especially smaller ones, have been hit hard over the past year during the pandemic. A fall survey of museums around the country found more than 30 percent remain closed and a third were at risk for permanently closing.
But one museum on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, has been bucking trends by being bold, gaining membership and financial support, even as the doors remain closed to the public.
Special correspondent Cat Wise has the story.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Cat Wise: No visitors have passed through the doors of the Five Oaks Museum since last March. And there's not a lot to see inside these days.
Normally, that might be a problem, but the staff of this small institution isn't concerned about being a work in progress.
Nathanael Andreini: Our vision for the place was not rooted in anything that had already occurred here.
Cat Wise: Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini are co-directors of the institution formerly known as the Washington County Museum. Started as a historical society in the 1950s, one of many throughout the West, it became a museum in 1980s, with a vast collection of artifacts from the descendants of settlers in the region, most of whom were white.
Molly Alloy: It takes a lot actually to do those moments well.
Cat Wise: When Alloy and Andreini, who are both artists and previously held other positions at the museum, took over two years ago, things were not looking good.
Molly Alloy: There were 13 members of the museum. That included the staff. The institution was struggling financially. It was struggling for leadership and to be able to be of service to the community.
Cat Wise: That community, which encompasses cities and towns west of Portland, is now one of the state's most diverse.
Nathanael Andreini: The racial and ethnic makeup of this county is just -- it's vast. And here we are telling this one story over and over again. They were doing it through the focus of women's clothing. We did it through the focus of the logging industry, all these different viewpoints to talk about the same people over and over again.
Cat Wise: They believed a big change was needed that started with who was telling the stories at the museum and what stories were being told.
Molly Alloy: We saw that the result of not trusting communities to be experts of their own cultural knowledge was choking the institution from being able to be, like, engaged with all of this vibrant cultural activity around it.
And we just thought, well, if we're going to trust people to be experts in their own perspectives, well, then that seems like the expertise we need behind our exhibitions.
Cat Wise: They invited Kalapuyan artist and writer Steph Littlebird Fogel, who is member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, to provide a critique of the museum's long-running exhibition about her people called This Kalapuya Land.
Working with scholar and fellow Grand Ronde member David Lewis, Fogel annotated and corrected the exhibition's panels to reflect the Kalapuyan people's views and experiences. She presented the revised panels, along with a diverse collection of works from 17 Native artists, in a new exhibition called This is Kalapuyan Land.
Molly Alloy: We learned so much from that process and how it was received by the community about listening and how to act listening as an institution.
After that, we were able to create more of a formal process. So we have a panel of invited community members who review applications from an open call to the community for proposals for exhibitions.
Cat Wise: Handing over curating responsibilities to the community was one big change in 2019. Another was a museum rebrand.
When looking for a new name that reflected the museum's commitment to diverse storytelling, they found inspiration at a historic site only a few miles away.
One remains, but for hundreds of years, five majestic oak trees claimed this spot now surrounded by commercial buildings. It was an important gathering spot for the Kalapuyan people and others.
Nathanael Andreini: This grove of trees, they have beared witness to all kinds of things for hundreds of years prior to settlement. And so the idea of the museum name changing to Five Oaks Museum, it was a way for us to, like, stay extremely open-ended.
Cat Wise: That open-ended approach has also meant looking back in different ways.
What is this?
Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk: This is a circa 1900 washing machine.
Cat Wise: Cultural resource manager Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk is in charge of cataloging and maintaining the museum's collection, some 100,000 objects, photos, and papers.
In the past, the emphasis was often on how white settlers used those artifacts, but not anymore.
Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk: We're using these objects to tell the stories of all of the people who would have come here, so a lot of Japanese settlers, Chinese settlers, even Mexican settlers.
So, for example, we have typewriters, and there are many examples of Black writers early in this era that would have been writing on a typewriter.
Cat Wise: She says the museum's new commitment to equity extends to the staff. With the support of a new and diverse board of directors, Alloy and Andreini have implemented a series of family-friendly policies and wage increases during their tenure.
Over the past year the museum, which gets funding from Washington County, has found new revenue streams, increased membership, and they have been connecting with the community in new ways. They launched a neighborhood exhibition project, hosted online classes for older adults in the community, turned over their Instagram account to local artists, many of whom are young and from communities of color.
And they have moved to all digital exhibitions, including one that elevates works from trans and gender-nonconforming artists. The museum's most recent online exhibition, called DISplace, was co-curated by Native Hawaiian artists Kanani Miyamoto and Lehuauakea.
It highlights the long and close connections between Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.
Lehuauakea: This is kapa cloth. This is the traditional textile of my people.
Cat Wise: Lehuauakea, who goes by their Hawaiian name and uses pronouns they/them, works with different mediums, but specializes in kapa making. It's a native Hawaiian, time-intensive practice of beating the fibers of certain trees into a soft cloth.
They were just a few years out of college when their proposal for the exhibition was accepted.
Lehuauakea: What I have learned from this exhibition is that our communities hold so much power and so much knowledge, and often that knowledge is swept under the rug in a museum context.
It is possible to grant people opportunities to tell their own stories and to curate exhibitions, even if they don't have the certain resume credentials that one might require typically.
Cat Wise: But some may wonder if the kinds of changes Five Oaks has made of would be possible at larger institutions.
Monica Montgomery is an independent curator and national museum consultant. She says all cultural institutions, regardless of size, have a responsibility to be more equitable and socially responsible.
Monica Montgomery: It's really great to see a community that's banding together with a new model of leadership, the co-directorship, with new ways of shaping narrative and really wanting true input, moving in step, lockstep, with the community to see how things can evolve.
And I think it is definitely rare, but hopefully will become more mainstream as time goes on.
Cat Wise: The museum's next exhibition will open, virtually, in July.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Washington County, Oregon.