With the opening of a sparkling new museum in downtown Corvallis, an obvious question that comes to mind involves the future of its older counterpart here in Philomath. The Benton County Historical Society opened the museum in August 1980 after years of work to restore the old Philomath College building.
In the three-plus decades since, the museum has served a variety of functions from rotating exhibits and library research to serving as a venue for community events.
The historical society’s new executive director, Jessica Hougen, said nothing will change.
“I know there has been some concern in the community about what will happen to this place,” said Hougen, who this summer replaced the retired Irene Zenev. “This place is not going anywhere. We don’t plan to change how we use it.”
In fact, some of the organization’s focus is returning to the Philomath Museum building’s needs. Repairs to the cupola occurred over the summer and discussions are ongoing about what to tackle next with the structure. The main section of the Philomath College building was constructed 155 years ago.
“Now that we’re over the hump with that (Corvallis Museum), I think we’re going to lean back into this one a little bit and give it a little bit of love,” Hougen said.
But as Hougen said, no changes are in order except perhaps through the development of future programs.
“The plan is to continue to have rotating exhibits here and the collections care facility obviously is always going to stay here,” Hougen said. “There’s a lot that we’re talking about doing for the future. We’re not really ready to share any particulars yet about upcoming programs or anything.”
At the center of those discussions is Patti Larkin, the historical society’s new curator of education.
“She and I have been talking a lot about what the future of our education program looks like, what kind of programs we want to start with,” Hougen said. “While we’re talking about a lot and while we’re preparing for a lot, the primary concern for us right now is still the health and safety of the community. So while we are planning and preparing, we’re not putting dates on anything yet … we want to make sure we’re in a safe place and a safe time before we really start inviting groups of people in the facilities again.”
The Philomath and Corvallis museums are open to the public, however, for those who want to stop in and enjoy the exhibits. The Philomath Museum is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and admission is free. The Corvallis Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m., with a $5 admission (free to BCHS members, youth 18 and under, and Oregon State University and Linn-Benton Community College students with a valid ID).
“There have been studies done that have shown museums are really a safe indoor space to go to,” Hougen pointed out. “One, because there aren’t usually huge crowds of people, it’s pretty easy to socially distance and to stay in your bubble. And also because museums generally have really good HVAC systems so there’s a lot more air control in the buildings.”
So who is Hougen and how did she end up leading the Benton County Historical Society and its two museums into the future?
Hougen’s journey into museum studies originated with an elective that she needed while pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon.
“I was always interested in history, anthropology and archaeology and as part of my bachelor’s in anthropology, I needed an elective … the only thing available was an Intro to Museum Studies course and I thought, ‘well, that’ll probably be kind of fun,’” Hougen said.
So, she signed up for the class, which was held in the U-of-O’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
“I remember just a few weeks in, sitting there thinking, ‘I really like this, this could be a lot of fun to actually do for a living,’” she recalled. “So it was just kind of happenstance that I ended up in that class.”
First moving to Eugene with her family while in middle school, Hougen earned bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and women’s studies. She completed her master’s degree work in 2004 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.
Hougen said she wanted to leave Oregon and explore a little while pursuing the idea of museum work. The United Kingdom has some of the best museums in the world, so she started applying to programs in England.
“Most of my friends didn’t believe I would actually go until I got on the plane,” she said. “But I loved it over there; it was a wonderful experience.”
Hougen picked up valuable hands-on experience through internships and learning firsthand from the people who were actually doing the work on a daily basis.
“The internship I worked at over there that I had most of the year was in the local museum, which was the Castle Museum,” she said. “And it was literally the castle in the middle of the town that was built in the 1100s.”
In the years since, she’s held a variety of museum positions. Prior to coming to Benton County, she worked for six years as the director and curator of the Sutter County Museum in Yuba City, California.
The BCHS took an important step forward with its mission through the establishment of the Corvallis Museum. The pandemic stole some of the thunder from the new facility’s opening, but Hougen believes the situation also provided an opportunity to focus on the future.
“What COVID did was it obviously imploded the plans for the big grand opening … what it’s also doing now is it’s given us a little more time to strategize and to plan and to figure out what it really means as an institution to run two facilities instead of one in two different towns,” Hougen said.
“That’s a silver lining for this organization — to have this kind of pause and to be able to really take some time and really figure out moving forward how best to do that in the interest of the community,” she added. “And me coming in the middle of that as well.”
Hougen completed the interviewing process through videoconferencing. In fact, she had not been in either museum prior to landing the job.
“Since I was from Oregon, I at least knew the towns a little bit,” she said. “It wasn’t completely a shot in the dark.”
Hougen, 42, who took over for Zenev with a start date of Aug. 2, said the Benton County Historical Society and the two museums are on solid footing despite the challenges over the past several months.
“Irene (Zenev) really left this place in great shape and there’s so much community interest in what we’re doing,” Hougen said. “To have that kind of support built in, that has really helped to keep everything going through the pandemic and it’s put us in a pretty good place actually. We’re starting to look towards the future and starting to make those plans and there’s going to be a lot of fun stuff coming.”
In addition to Hougen, the BCHS also welcomed Larkin as the new education curator. Larkin also attended the University of Oregon and earned a master’s degree in museum studies at the State University of New York-Oneonta at Cooperstown.
Larkin worked for the past decade as curator and programs manager for the Pittock Mansion in Portland. Her work history includes time with the Horner Museum, which at the time was preparing for the move of artifacts to Philomath. She started her new position in July.
The Horner Museum operated until 1995 on the OSU campus. After closing because of budget cuts, the Benton County Historical Society saved the collection and added it to its own holdings in a purpose-built museum storage facility.
Hougen called the Horner Collection amazing and said it provides the type of exhibition potential that goes beyond what one might expect from a county historical society.
“Usually you’re locked into those same stories of county history and you’re going to be constrained by what stories you can tell by the nature of the organization,” Hougen said. “Having a collection like the Horner Collection that was built by someone in this community, it gives us a lot more breadth to play with in terms of the stories we’re telling and the artifacts we have to tell those stories.”
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