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Treasure hunt: Curators prepare for Corvallis Museum and Cultural Center

Irene Zenev runs the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath, and oversees the archiving of thousands and thousands of artifacts preserved from the former OSU Horner Museum, which closed due to budget cuts.

Irene Zenev runs the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath, and oversees the archiving of thousands and thousands of artifacts preserved from the former OSU Horner Museum, which closed due to budget cuts. NWBSN staff

As warehouses go, a nondescript building in Philomath looks as expected.

But walk inside, and find thousands of artifacts — from a wooden loom and old-fashioned carriages, to vintage cars, wheelchairs and even a mastodon. Carefully stored and archived, these relics were rescued by the Benton County Historical Society from a tax law that surely meant their demise.

“(Oregon State University) had been collecting items since the 19th century,” says Irene Zenev, executive director of the Benton County Historical Society. “But in 1995, Measure 5 took away public funding, and the community was really upset. Some of the historical society’s members decided to take over the objects from the university and build a new museum in Corvallis. There’s a rule written, that allows the transfer from the university to a nonprofit group, which we are.”

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Benton County Historical Museum.

The Benton County Historical Society plans to build a 19,000 square foot, two-story building dubbed the Corvallis Museum and Cultural Center, where it will display the many thousands of treasures it has been collecting for the past 20 years after Oregon State University closed its campus history museum.

After it took possession of the artifacts, the society also purchased a building in downtown Corvallis that previously housed the Copeland Lumber Company. But after an inspection deemed it to be in poor condition, the society embarked on a 10-year journey to build not only the Philomath warehouse, but a new building for the museum.

Approximately two-thirds — $6.5 million — of its $9.5 million goal has been realized. “We expect to have more than 70 percent of the goal by late spring and break ground in 2017 so we can open the museum in 2018,” Zenev says.

Portland-based Allied Works, which specializes in museums, is the architect chosen for the new project. “We plan to give visitors a new experience, marrying modern architecture with history,” Zenev says.

A treasure trove

Tom Fuller, an independent consultant working as the society’s conservator, smiles as he walks through the artifacts in the climate-controlled warehouse, pointing out a stuffed mountain lion sitting on a large rock, and a stuffed moose that serves as the society’s mascot. There are raptors, other large birds, and even a penguin. All look as though they’re ready to pounce or fly away.

He says the current collection offers several hundred species of animals and birds.

“The objects’ historical value is more important than their monetary value,” Zenev says. “They are priceless; there’s no way to get them back.”

But the warehouse, built to protect the items from climate, air, dust, theft and other environmental hazards, has more than animals. It also offers rocks, geologic minerals and fossils – most hidden away in boxes because there are so many. But a visitor will see typewriters, pianos, radios, glass and various household objects from the 19th century through today. Like the animals, some are local while others come from around the world.

There are also toys and dolls, with a Barbie dating back to the 19th century, and American Indian items.

On a rotating basis, the museum also will showcase costume jewelry, sculptures, textiles, computers, various machines, sports paraphernalia, hats, wheelchairs, furniture, musical instruments, farm implements, trucks, art and many other items too numerous to mention.

“Many of the items are paper objects that weren’t meant to be saved, such as theater programs and brochures that tell the history of the people that lived here,” says Mary Gallagher, collections and research manager.

But it wouldn’t be historical without the methods people used to get around. Among the carriages is a Victoria carriage the university received in 1930 from Gov. Oswald West. There’s also a surrey with fringe on top that was used in an OSU production of “Oklahoma,” Gallagher says. There’s also a phaeton and a couple of other carriages that require horses.

One carriage that doesn’t require horses is a 1937 Chevrolet that seems to be as big as a boat. There’s also a car engine and other machinery. Specimens will be part of revolving exhibits.

“The collection is too large to display constantly,” Zenev says. “By revolving the exhibits, we save all the specimens from the environment and bring out other subjects.”

‘World-class’

Once the architects finish their designs, Renate, professional museum exhibition designers, “will create a world-class museum that will showcase these amazing collections,” she says.

The museum won’t be just for adults who want to bathe themselves in history, but will allow Benton County’s children and students to discover and experience what it was like for people who’ve lived here in the past. School children will get to hear stories from the past and see the objects that people used every day.

They also will get to participate in activities that will engage and teach them how people lived. University students and scholars will be able to research papers, documents and photos from the past.

The new museum and cultural center will feature a project gallery on the first floor as well as educational space, an exhibit prep workshop, a catering area, two courtyards and a museum store. The second floor will house five galleries around the courtyards as well as offices and a boardroom.

Plans are to offer new exhibitions that will provide connections between objects and ideas, Zenev says. These will undoubtedly raise questions to help explore the past and inform the present and the future. The society hopes to provide unique educational programs for students, historians and adult learners with workshops, special events and gallery tours.

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