Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pulling Strings

It's not everyday I walk pass supersized skeletons. Although they weren't actual remains of any previously existing creatures but more like giant cartoon characters let loose in the real world, they were still mighty impressive. I saw them through the windows of the Oregon Historical Society Museum. What one has to do with the other beats me but I was curious about the whole thing. After visiting the website, I found out the skeletons were part of a puppetry exhibit featuring the art of award-winning Michael Curry and his design studio team. Even more impressive than that piece of information was the fact that every third Saturday of the month, the OHS holds a "Barbara Davies Free Day" in which they offer free admission to the museum courtesy of a nice lady who wanted to share its resources with the community. Not needing to pull any strings to see a puppet show for free and with the suddenly sweltering summer weather, a day in a museum never sounded so good.

In the lobby was a table set up for visitors. They were giving away freebies. What use I have for a magnet, a book about sports achievements, and two sets of postcards is anyone's guess but I took them anyway. After stocking up, I headed for the "Puppetry: An Out of Body Experience" exhibit.

There was so much to see. In fact, I needed to do a complete walk around of the whole room before I could fully take in and focus on any individual object and appreciate each one- and then try to form coherent thoughts. There were masks, props, conceptual art, prototypes, marionettes, "meganettes", photos, and, of course, puppets from the various productions he's done. And his list of clients is indeed impressive- Disney, Cirque du Soleil, and the Olympics just to name a few. I was fascinated by the pieces that moved on their own like the paper puppet model from "Cirque Du Soleil- Love". There was a blacklight room in the pieces glowed in the dark. There were also a couple of videos showing behind the scene footage from the studio and the Broadway play of "The Lion King". The words that came to mind were: beautiful, amazing, fantastic, and fantastical. I had to remind myself that for every already incredible costume and prop made, there were people- performers- who made use of them to put on a show. What I liked best about the exhibit was the interactiveness of it. I played with a mechanical prototype of Simba from "The Lion King". My favorite part though was getting to move the skeletons that attracted me in the first place. "El din de Muertos" or "Day of the Dead" is a couple of skeletons- one male, one female- designed for Disney's California Adventure. There were a set of strings and each moved an arm or leg so it was fun to make them move and dance. "Puppetry" was truly innovative and I would have been happy to have just seen that and left but there were many more things to see.

"Hungry Planet" sounded like something I'd be interested in but all it was were photographs of families from various countries showcasing how similar and different our eating habits, choices, and preferences are. It would have been nice if they had food samples from the exotic places but then again I always think things would be better if I had something to eat.

I originally thought those two exhibits were it but looking at a map, I saw the OHS had four floors, the topmost reserved for their research library. I had come in from the Park Avenue entrance and so I was on the second floor. On my way to the first level, there was a display of "Great Athletes, Great Oregonians" on loan from the now closed Oregon Sports Hall of Fame & Museum. The only thing I was remotely fascinated with in the midst of all the memorabilia, artifacts, and photography was the statue of three umpires looking at the sky. Entitled "Bottom of the 6th (or Game Called Because of Rain)", it was based on the famous Norman Rockwell painting which first appeared on the cover of the "Saturday Evening Post".

The Northwest Art Gallery was basically just a hallway of paintings, which I understood they change out from time to time. Also on display was a restoration of "the Benson Automobile"- the first car built in Oregon.

I was lucky I went to the museum when I did because many of the exhibits on the first floor were scheduled to end their run. In "Oregon's Legacy: The New Deal at 75", I liked looking at the artifacts from earlier times. (Although, to me, "artifacts" makes things sound more ancient than they really are. Perhaps "antiques" would be a better term?) There was the "President's Chair" which was specifically designed and built for Franklin D. Roosevelt by the Timberline Lodge. Also there was something called a megohmer- a device used to measure the amount of electrical current leakage. In "Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy", it was cool to see miniature models of the ship because they must have been time-consuming to create. The other exhibit was dedicated to "Western Native Basketry". Some pieces were on loan from the Museum of Contemporary Craft. Also on the first floor was the Museum store, which had its own entrance on Broadway Avenue.

The other highlight for me after "Puppetry" was the award-winning interactive exhibit "Oregon My Oregon" taking up the entire third floor. There were the usual old stuff including a collection of hats and shoes representing various occupational and cultural communities throughout the state's history. There was "Margaret Frank's Remarkable Wagon" packed full of what they would have needed to hit the trail. It's amazing to imagine how they must have lived their lives back in those days. The best part was being able to get hands on with the surroundings and seeing certain spaces recreated like being in a "Plank House", the "Yasui Grocery Store", and the Hudson's Bay Company trade ship complete with creaking floor boards and trunks you can rummage through. There were also a couple of theaters but my favorite part was the "Newberry Lunch Counter" video presentation. The actual diner it was based on had a downtown location from 1927 to 1996. A menu provided the available videos you can view, each tackling a different modern Oregon issue. The jukeboxes is what the visitors used to play their selection on the large flat screen TV.

The whole experience at the Oregon Historical Society Museum was completely enriching. I was inspired by the beauty of the things I saw. I learned things and was exposed to historical and culturally significant information presented in unique interactive ways. I had great fun and would definitely recommend anyone visiting Portland to stop by the OHS and see for themselves what I can't stop raving about.

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