Last summer the Washington County Museum picked a dynamic new team to lead it into the future, naming Community Engagement Coordinator Molly Alloy, 38, and Education Director Nathanael Andreini, 45 as co-directors. They immediately embarked on a re-thinking of the 63-year-old institution, overhauling its educational curriculum, diversifying its exhibit curation, and expanding its focus to further include the perspectives of the region’s Native American and immigrant communities, giving the arts a higher profile than ever.
But as the pair accelerated their efforts, which they’d begun in their previous positions at the museum, they realized that something stood in the way of their new, broader vision for the museum: its name.
FOR ONE THING, AS THE MUSEUM EXPANDED its digital reach beyond its cozy campus at Portland Community College Rock Creek, the team realized that it risked confusion, because there are Washington Counties across the United States. Nor is the independent museum, whose history stretches back decades before its consolidation as Washington County Historical Society, actually owned by Oregon’s Washington County, though the county is one of its major supporters.
But the name’s limitations ran deeper. “The ‘Washington County’ designation came to this area when Western settlers established American control of this place,” Alloy explained. “By starting there, we’re cutting off 10,000 years of history that preceded it. The county is only one person at the dinner party. The stories that can be told about this area go so far beyond that that’s it’s not accurate historically for the institution. To retain that name does privilege a certain kind of history that is already the dominant narrative.”
The idea of a rebrand actually preceded their arrival, having been floated among board members for at least three years. As the new team committed to trying to tell the stories of all the people of the region, they “hit the unpause button” on that effort, Andreini said, seeking a name that didn’t refer to a specific group, not even a single Native tribe.
“There was an inconsistency between our work and our name,” Alloy said. “It’s out of sync with what we do now. We wanted a name that had room for everything that’s valid about the community now, and leaves room for growth.”
That’s a tall order to place on a word or two. Fortunately, they had help: the museum itself. One of its own exhibits provided the inspiration for the new name when the pair met to ponder a new name earlier this year.
“We were standing in Nathanael’s office, talking around and around the idea,” Alloy recalled. “Was there something local that had some punch and charisma, had character and an emotive quality?”
Andreini: “Something hyper local but possibly graphically recognizable to someone in another country…”
Other typical names for the area, like Tualatin (which excludes other Native and other groups) or West Side (which defines the area in relation to another one — no one calls Portland “the East Side,” after all) felt wrong, too.
Alloy: “He just looked up to the ceiling, and….”
“I got the inspiration from our museum,” Andreini remembered. “There’s a text panel in the previous iteration of the Kalapuya exhibit” that referred to a local landmark just a couple miles from the museum. Well-known to anyone who grew up in the area, a grove of ancient white oaks has abided for centuries, predating European arrivals, surrounded by open land cultivated first by Native Americans and then white settlers.
Books and other documents in the museum’s collection substantiated the significance of the Five Oaks to the region’s history. “The five oaks have stood witness to 500 years of change in the Tualatin Valley,” reads a museum planning document. “The trees have marked a significant site for the Tualatin Kalapuyan peoples, fur trappers from Hudson’s Bay Company, and settlers celebrating American patriotism in Oregon’s provisional government era,” including pre-statehood Fourth of July festivities dating back to the 1840s. Standing along major transportation routes for centuries, including today’s commuter-clogged Sunset Highway, Five Oaks was a meeting place for various Tualatin groups traveling around the valley. “In later years farmers hauling hay, grain, and produce to Portland markets paused here to rest. Over the years celebrations, picnics, business transactions, horse races, religious revivals, and court sessions, all were held near these historic trees.”
One of the 500-year-old oaks still stands. The others were felled in storms in the 20th century, but replaced in the 1990s, so that the Five Oaks grove remains, a symbol of both renewal and endurance, as Andreini and Alloy want the museum to be.
“This is a very special place,” longtime Washington County Museum director Joan Smith told The Oregonian in 1999. “For hundreds of years people gathered here. It sums up the whole history of Washington County.”
Last summer, the team researched museum archives and compiled a “massive” document (quoted above) describing the name’s cultural and historical significance, and solicited feedback about the proposed name with newsletter subscribers and other museum stakeholders.
“The longer we went through the process,” Alloy said, “the Five Oaks name concept kept snowballing in how much storytelling could be done around it: how it enacted our values, our history, different historical and cultural narratives, the graphic potential, the strong local connection. Ultimately everybody came to see that it allowed us to tell more stories, it’s more honest, it’s more truthful.”
The board chose the new name over another candidate as well as the option of keeping the original. Today its new brand, including a new website, goes live.
REBRANDS CAN AMOUNT TO MERELY OLD WINE in new bottles. But in this case, the name change follows and exemplifies the museum’s substantive reinvention and its new, more pluralistic approach to representing the region’s culture. In making the museum relevant to the Tualatin Valley’s diverse communities — from those with long roots stretching back to pioneer days and earlier to today’s burgeoning immigrant population (Oregon’s most diverse) — “we are following the reality of the community we exist in,” Alloy said.
For example, the area’s immigrant experience appears in a new mini-exhibit Five Oaks created within The Immigrant Story‘s DREAMs Deferred exhibit, which opens this week at the Oregon Historical Society. “Our contribution is to create a platform within their exhibit so contributors can share their own stories about a specific group of immigrant and refugee experiences,” Alloy said.
That expansive, ever-evolving approach is apparent in Five Oaks’s current, newly updated main exhibit, This IS Kalapuyan Land (see Laurel Reed Pavic’s ArtsWatch review, and watch for a broader interview on Friday with Alloy and Andreini in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series), as well as in its revised educational curriculum. The museum runs a number of on- and off-site programs for learners ranging from second graders through PCC students through older students in assisted-living facilities, as well as maintaining an extensive research library and hosting classes, workshops, and other community events.
“It’s a living curriculum,” Andreini said. “We’re pivoting away from a pre-packaged presentation that’s regurgitated every year [in favor of] a more flexible, more adaptable, listening stance.” Created by the artists in the Kalapuyan show and its guest curator, Stephanie Littlebird Fogel, and overseen by Andreini and Five Oaks Learning Coordinator Victoria Sundell, the curriculum evolves every time it’s taught, as the museum uncovers more stories from more corners of the region. “The truth is not a fixed position,” Andreini said. “It keeps growing. It keeps moving.”
“We’re in a time where people can handle a lot more stories, where more truths are available,” Alloy said. “One truth not held as the one definitive thing. That’s growth, that’s healing from harm, to understand that the truth is a living plurality.”
That’s also why the new team is giving the arts a higher priority in its new vision for the museum. “Art is multi-vocal, multi-modal,” Andreini explained. “The inroads to discuss identity and history and culture are endless. The academic history model has so many limitations, and art just blows the freaking door wide open.”
“The arts are kind of wild, untamed,” said Alloy, who recently made headlines for “editing” a Portland chocolate shop’s colonialist logo in a way reminiscent of Five Oaks’s Kalapuyan Land exhibit. “History can be academically confined and tidied, so I think the two have a nice harmony together. A lot of times we talk about art as methodology and history as content, but art can become the vehicle to give the content dynamic life. It provides more ways people can relate to it. And it’s alive!”
FIVE OAKS MUSEUM IN AN ACORN SHELL
WHERE: Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus, 17677 NW Springville Road, Portland
HOURS: Noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays; field trips and group visits available other hours by registration
ADMISSION: $5 ages over 18. Free for members; people 18 or younger; people with PCC identification, SNAP or WIC cards; members of North American Reciprocal Museum Association; aides to visitors with disabilities; employees with REAP passes; people with fun passes or a Cultural Pass from the library
ONLINE: Five Oaks Museum
MUSEUM STAFF: Meet the Team