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  • Marit Hickey, Staff Writer

Opinion: Why small museums are worth visiting

Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Photo by Caramia Christensen

All around the world, grand museums serve as repositories for the art and history of humanity. It’s an important role, as museums provide education to the public and serve as storehouses of important sources for many researchers keen on understanding the past. However, because museums are an invaluable player in preserving history, our choices surrounding what museums we support inadvertently decide what history is preserved. It’s not odd that larger institutions get more attention, but it can mean that smaller museums are often left behind when they are just as important to support, especially because they tend to focus on histories local to an area. In this way, small museums are worth visiting not just because you might learn something, but also because you can help these institutions in a meaningful way by showing up. 

Dr. Ellen Eisenberg is the Dwight and Margaret Leer chair of American history here at Willamette and teaches a class about diversifying history in the Pacific Northwest. “A lot of students I meet, whatever state they’re from, they’ve got some state history in third or fourth grade, and that’s it. Ironically, accelerated track students may get even less because they tend to take AP or IB classes, which include no local history whatsoever,” she said. 

Modernity and globalization have fostered a feeling of placelessness in many of us that is only exaggerated by spotty knowledge of our home’s past, wherever that home may be. “Narrative is an important part of creating community,” Kylie Pine, the curator and collections manager at the Willamette Heritage Center, commented, “and it's a shared narrative just by the fact that we’re all living in this one place.” 

In general, history is important to learn for the ways it helps foster empathy and critical thinking skills, both of which apply even more to the stories behind where we live. “Within the last year, we’ve curated and hosted an exhibit looking at Salem’s Chinatown and the experience of Chinese Americans within Salem, which often gets subsumed into stories about Portland,” Pine said. Commenting on the same exhibit, Dr. Eisenberg added, “There was no trace of [Salem’s 19th century Chinatown] left, really. They called out to the community and asked people to bring things in, and they ended up collecting a lot of photos and documents. A lot of that stuff otherwise ends up in someone’s basement and then eventually gets thrown out.” 

Without the Heritage Center’s intervention, it is not hard to imagine that Salem’s Chinatown, as well as the people that lived there, would have been completely forgotten over time. Knowing about histories like these are absolutely vital in expanding whose stories get preserved, especially in a world that systematically tries to undermine the existence of marginalized people. In this way, institutions like the Willamette Heritage Center are small but incredibly mighty. Though they might not attract the press or prestige of a large museum, the work they’re doing matters. 

Unfortunately, many small museums suffer from a chronic lack of funding and attention from the public. Said public also includes the students here at Willamette: “I find when I bring students [to the Heritage Center] that the vast majority of them had never been there,” Dr. Eisenberg mentioned. Pine similarly noted, “I would love to see a lot more community members come in and be a part of the conversation.”

The Heritage Center, which is just across the street from campus, helps provide countless opportunities for students. You can always visit, but you can also get involved in their work as an undergraduate, either independently or as a part of a class. For example, Dr. Eisenberg teaches several classes that give students the chance to interact with the Heritage Center like HIST-199-01, which focuses on bringing diverse perspectives into the history of Oregon. 

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