Bright and early on the morning of Friday January 31, our ENVS 295 class set out on a field trip. The first stop on our trip was the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, located on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge about 45 minutes east of Portland. Getting off the bus, we found ourselves in front of a modern building overlooking the Columbia River. As we walked into the museum, we were warmly greeted by staff members, one of whom led us to the “Harvesting Resources” gallery, one of the museum’s many interactive exhibits. There, we learned about the fishing and timber industries in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibit displayed a replica of a fishing device called a fishwheel that fishermen used on the river, and we saw a demonstration of how it worked. A fishwheel was a giant wheel that was raised and lowered into the water, the river caused the wheel to spin, and fish swam into it. Next, we learned about sawmills and saw a steam engine that came from a sawmill in the area in action. After the interactive exhibits, we went to the second floor of the museum and watched a short video about the geography of the Columbia Gorge. Afterwards, we had about an hour to explore the museum on our own. Other exhibits included the natural history of the Columbia Gorge, the world’s largest rosary collection, and the history of the Cascade Chinook.
The Columbia Gorge has a long, rich history that has included many different groups of people. These groups, especially through their interactions with each other, have been a driving force in the evolution of the area. In order to display all actors that have contributed to this story, the museum had exhibits showcasing the native people of the land, the land itself, and the explorers and settlers that colonized this area. Through these exhibits, the museum highlights the changes to technology and culture the area has endured, thus emphasizing how communities and land are ever-changing. One of the biggest catalysts for cross-cultural engagement at the time was trade, as trading allowed for different groups to exchange food and tools necessary for living on the land. Moreover, the exhibits specifically showcased examples of settlers learning about native people and the ways in which they interacted with the land, comparing and contrasting the settlers’ and the natives’ approach to engaging with the land.
Our experience at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum definitely had relevant implications for our Environmental Engagement class. The word “interpretive” in the museum’s very name suggests that the viewer engages with the space and exhibits beyond simply receiving information. Instead, through hands-on immersion, the visitor is invited into the museum’s dialogue. The design of the museum in the main downstairs gallery, including the moving water, fishwheel demonstration, and steam engine, transports the visitor through time, allowing them to imagine the landscape and machinery of the past. Thus, attendees are able to engage with the museum’s content intimately and creatively, rather than just reading about how the technology worked. Moreover, the layout of the museum’s exhibits flowed through different time periods, showcasing multiple cultural perspectives. The museum also offered varying mediums in the numerous exhibitions, including operating technology, an immersive video screening, and fascinating collections of historical objects. This diversity of exhibitions and artifacts maintains the viewer’s interest as they walk through the space and learn about the history of the Columbia Gorge area. Living up to its title of being an “interpretive” space, the museum forces the visitor to take an active role in interacting with the content, thus inviting them to engage with the material in a memorable and interesting way.
While the museum did an excellent job of compiling a wide array of voices and perspectives, the exhibits felt disjointed in many ways and could benefit from a sense of cohesiveness. When walking through the interpretive center, each exhibit is sectioned off, and as you walk through the museum you get an in depth amount of information on a particular subject and suddenly have to switch gears to an entirely different subject without an understanding of how the exhibits relate. It can be argued that a number of museums have a similar structure, for example art museums are specifically sectioned off by art style, artist, and or period without a transition as well. However, given that the museum is exemplifying the history of the Columbia Gorge, it would feel more historically accurate if it elaborated on the interaction between the different voices of the Columbia Gorge. For example, on the second floor we walked through a series of exhibits that went from an impressive rosary collection to a room of beautiful vintage furniture, then to a space full of exquisite Japanese artwork.
While interesting on their own, there was no explanation of how these various actors represented in the exhibits engaged with each other. Although the museum did an incredible job of including a number of minority voices, we do not want to minimize the effort put into inclusion, as representation is simply not enough. Thus, the museum’s failure to create linkages between varying actors exemplifies how the future of engagement depends not only on representing a large variety of voices, but creating a sense of cohesion between different voices as well.
Implications for Engagement
Walking away from the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, we saw an example of how creativity is key in successful engagement with the public. Through creating an immersive experience, the museum was able to make a lasting impression on its attendees. With the museum as an inspiration for our own engagement pursuits, we should similarly harness our creative abilities in order to make a substantial impact on others. Moreover, by sharing information surrounding the people and communities inhabiting the Columbia Gorge throughout time, the museum encourages its visitors to think about how different types of engagement shape the course of history, whether that be engagement with people or engagement with land and resources. While engagement is often thought of as a person-to-person experience, the museum served as a reminder that it is much broader, and can be done with non-human actors. Finally, the museum’s failure to connect the cultural perspectives shown provides a lesson in how not to engage with numerous diverse communities in pursuit of a goal. Instead of dividing and alienating each perspective, we must seek interconnectivity and commonality in order to work as a collective. Additionally, before engaging with diverse communities, we must educate ourselves on how these communities have impacted each other throughout history in order to have a prior understanding of existing dynamics or cultural tensions.