A Vote to Save Our History

Kristin Teigen

The Oregon Historical Society represents our ability to continue to learn about Oregon, what makes Oregon unique, and to preserve our history for the future.

Buried in the Voter’s Pamphlet, and hidden way down on your ballot, is an incredibly important local ballot measure, 26-118. The measure will provide the necessary support to keep our one and only Oregon Historical Society alive for the next five years by a local option levy.

If 26-118 doesn’t pass and without additional funds, the state’s sole repository for our history will be forced to close its museum, its library, or both, making Oregon the only state in the union without a historical society. The measure levies 5 cents per thousand on assessed property value, for an average of $10 per year.

Closing OHS? Seriously? How did we get here? Well, since it’s about history, let’s look back a bit. In 1898, the Oregon Historical Society was founded with a promise from the state of Oregon that it would support the organization in perpetuity. That should have been - forever. A very long time. The State kept that promise, providing almost half of its budget, even through the Great Depression and two World Wars, all the way until 2003.

Starting 2003, the State was unable to continue the support it had been giving OHS. Budgeting nightmares ensued at OHS, with severe cuts in services and hours. Now, OHS is ranked dead last among historical societies in the nation in terms of support it receives from the state.

Remember that our History Museum and Library is the single largest collection of history about the entire Oregon Territory, in the world. The collections have (you ready?) 25,000 maps, 30,000 books, 8.5 million feet of film and videotape, 16,000 rolls of microfilm, and 12,000 linear feet of documents. It has nearly 3 million photographs. All of these essentially detail Oregon’s history. And there’s nowhere else to see nearly all of it.

To save this vital resource, the Historical Society and its advocates have pushed hard and been creative about finding ways for the state to support the institution and to stay alive. Nothing worked at the state level.

However, in August, the Multnomah County Commissioners voted unanimously to put this local levy on the ballot. The five year levy will give the leadership of OHS some essential breathing room to work toward a long-term funding solution with the state legislature.

Local commissioners understand that without our history, we would have a difficult future. Where would scholars and students go to learn about, and experience, Oregon history? Where would schoolchildren go to see Oregon history come alive, so they can be better able to lead us in the future? And where would regular Oregonians turn in learning about the neighborhoods, their city and their ancestors?

The local levy will keep the OHS open , including the Museum, which welcomes over 40,000 visitors every year, including nearly 8,000 schoolchildren. The Museum provides a home for permanent and travelling exhibits, including an upcoming one on African-American Murals as well as another on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

The local levy also funds restoration of hours at the very important the Research Library, which has the largest collection on Oregon history in the world. The collections include the personal papers of nearly all of Oregon’s major politicians, from Tom McCall to Edith Green, as well as vast collections reflecting the history of immigrant and newcomer populations as well as and gay and lesbian, people of color, women’s, and labor histories. Thousands of researchers, from academic professionals to lay historians to school children – from across the globe to right here - rely upon the Library for its unique resources.

OHS also publishes Oregon Historical Quarterly, the only peer-reviewed journal about Oregon history with a 110-year history of publication. The Quarterly brings history into the present to affect the future. Articles have been used to influence current policy debates, such as the recent discussion on high school equity issues and land use planning.

The levy protects OHS’s huge collections of over 85,000 unique artifacts, which will be able to rotate as part of exhibits the public can enjoy.

Oregon Historical Society does much more, from coproducing with OPB the Oregon Experience program to being one of the largest tourist destinations in our state, attracting out of town visitors who spend money here.

Despite the cuts in OHS’s budget, it has never been more in demand. Its attendance has increased as more researchers have used the library and archives and more children have learned from our exhibits. Our Historical Society is irreplaceable and urgent to preserve.

Why Multnomah County? Because the Oregon Historical Society is located here, it is our de facto County Historical Society (with 65% of library material relating directly to Multnomah County; and we are one of only two counties in all or Oregon without our own historical society), and because without these funds, OHS will have to close facilities starting next year.

In return, for the five years of the Levy free admission will be provided to all Multnomah County residents and to all schoolchildren on field trips.

The measure would also create an independent citizen committee to oversee the expenditure of funds, including performing of regular public audits. The citizens committee would reflect Multnomah County’s diverse cultures.

The Oregon Historical Society represents our ability to continue to learn about Oregon, what makes Oregon unique, and to preserve our history for the future.

We can’t put all of this under lock and key. Vote YES on 26-118.

Comments

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    Full Disclosure -- I'm a staff person on the 26-118 campaign..

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    OHS is a great resource - I've used the archives multiple times and each time left humbled and greatly better informed about our history. I'm excited to vote for this measure.

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    I support this measure because I want to see OHS remain open. But seriously: this is the OREGON Historical Society, responsible for curating the history of this entire state. Right now, Multnomah County taxpayers are being asked to step up and take charge of what SHOULD be the responsibility of the entire State of Oregon. I hope they do, but I also hope there's a plausible state-wide solution over the next five years.

    Also: "one of the largest tourist destinations in our state"? Seriously? Like Multnomah Falls or the Oregon Zoo? I'm an OHS member and visit pretty frequently, but whenever I drop by, the place is almost empty. Am I just missing the crowds of tourists?

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    Doug -- You're absolutely right that OHS is a state responsibility. Everyone at OHS agrees, as do all of the County Commissioners. The levy is buying OHS some breathing room to renew the state's promise to the organization, and the leadership will be working tirelessly in the coming years to push open any new doors of support.

    And you're a lucky guy, missing the crowds, because OHS is indeed a big tourist draw. I was a Fellow there when they hosted an exhibit a few years back, and there were lines down the block to get in. With the free admission, there will certainly be more people when you visit.

    And THANK YOU for your strong support!

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