Coos History Museum looks beyond the past to address issues of social justice | Oregon ArtsWatch

2022-06-24 18:56:46 By : Mr. John Ren

Every history museum must both reveal and revel in the idea that the past has not passed. More than other kinds of museums, they are intrinsically haunted institutions.

The critical demand they must answer is how is the past present? In what form, and with whose voice, is it speaking? To whom is it speaking? And what does it want? Can the past be quietly digested, or is the audience supposed to do something with it?

With a recently built, 15,000-square-foot waterfront location, upward of 50,000 objects, and a rich archive of more than 250,000 images in its permanent collection, the Coos History Museum has generous means to both conjure the past and tune its voice. And the museum is asking its audience, more than ever before, to consider how the past shapes the future.

OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series

Outside collaborators and guests have played a key role in this transformation. Taylor Stewart, a Portland-based activist and founder of Oregon Remembrance Project, has helped push the museum further toward issues of social justice.

At the museum’s first Juneteenth celebration last year, which Stewart helped inspire and organize, he said, “Public remembrance only goes so far. It requires action in the present day to repair the harms of the past.” Harms that haven’t passed.

The museum will hold its second annual Juneteenth celebration on Saturday and Sunday, beginning with a dedication to the Black, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavian, and other coal miners of Beaver Hill, who were commemorated in a historical marker last October.

Located in Coos Bay, the most populated seaside city in Oregon, the museum is  dedicated to archiving and examining the regional history of Coos County.

The cluster of towns around the bay where the Coos River meets the ocean is what locals call Oregon’s Bay Area. Inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before the first European settlers arrived in 1852-53, this spot today includes, after some aggressive dredging, the largest deep-water shipping port between San Francisco and Portland.

To a degree, the museum offers visitors a slice of cultural plurality, from Indigenous creation myths and tribal massacres, to the seafaring dangers and technological advances of white settlers, to the memorializing of Alonzo Tucker, the only documented Black victim of lynching in Oregon between 1877 and 1950, who was murdered not far from where the museum stands.

Indigenous and Black histories may feel like an obvious thing to incorporate in a retelling of local history, even in a county – or especially in a county – that is more than 90 percent white. But it is an aspect of the museum’s programming that has been evolving over time and has been the most robust in the past couple of years, following the murder of George Floyd and encouragement by Stewart.

The museum takes some interest in the distant prehistory of the natural world while also presenting objects as contemporary as a baseball bat that washed ashore after the 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami. But the focus of the collection is 19th– and 20th-century industrial and cultural life.

To commemorate and interrogate this history, two main strategies are in play: artifact and memorial action. The majority of the museum’s objects are artifacts, but the memorial actions honoring Tucker are powerful. More on that in a bit.

At least one object blurs the distinction between what is artifact and what is memorial, and it is likely the first thing visitors will see as they approach the entrance. Appearing to protrude from the front of the museum’s north exterior wall is the stern half of a small fishing boat. This used to be the Coho, a vintage salmon troller the museum acquired from a shipyard in nearby Charleston.

Visitors will discover the front half of the boat on the opposite side of this wall, inside the main gallery.

The effect this creates is multiple. The museum sits right on the waterfront, so this becomes a shipwreck, an event common to the history of the area, beginning with the one that brought the first European settlers to the bay. It’s also an episode of time travel, where watercraft from a previous era – before the museum was built – has phased in and interrupted the physical boundaries of the present. And it’s partially a Looney Tunes cartoon, wherein things can be sawed in half and still maintain a relatively coherent continuity.

It’s all of these things, but what it might most meaningfully express is an insight into the nature of studying history.

When we read about history, we draw the details to our own center of gravity. We tell ourselves a story, cultivating an internal experience about the past that can be more vivid than the present. This vicarious quasi-subjectivity is what makes history so exhilarating and immersive.

Fantasy fills the gaps that documented history bridges, and we thereby resurrect the past, in a fragmentary way. History is a series of records combined with a phantasm of our own making. It is the means by which the ship from the past enters the room – while simultaneously being caught outside of it.

The split Coho is on the west side of the entrance door. On the east side is an austere, cobalt blue metal marker with a block of embossed gold text below the headline Lynching in Coos County. Planted in a circular bed of rocks, this marker is one of two permanent contributions Stewart helped bring to the history museum.

The text describes the shocking 1902 fate of Alonzo Tucker, a 28-year-old Black man who was hunted by a mob of white miners. Tucker spent the night hiding under the docks, was discovered the next morning, shot twice, and bled to death in the street. Some 300 spectators watched in broad daylight as the killers strung his lifeless body from a light pole on a bridge to show off and celebrate what they had done.

Tucker had been accused of sexually assaulting a miner’s wife, a white woman. Later eyewitness testimony described the relationship as consensual, but the marker reminds us that during this time, evidence was not a precondition of violence. A Black man could be lynched for merely speaking to a white woman, even if the contact was one of mutual interest.

“No one was held accountable for his lynching,” reads the marker. “We remember Alonzo Tucker, and all unknown victims of lynching, as we pursue truth, justice, and reconciliation.”

The Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative has sponsored markers like this across many states, documenting the sites of lynchings to help reshape the public face of national history. Stewart learned about the group’s mission and projects during a two-week “Civil Rights Immersion” trip he took through the University of Portland in the summer of 2018, immediately after completing his undergraduate studies.

Also on this trip, he learned about Tucker’s story. He began remotely volunteering for the Equal Justice Initiative shortly thereafter, and single-handedly formed his own organization, Oregon Remembrance Project, to pursue social justice generally and justice for Alonzo Tucker specifically.

In a nutshell, that two-week trip changed his life forever.

“It was such a profound encounter with history,” Stewart said. “I’d spent my whole life in Oregon, and I couldn’t believe that I had to go all the way to Montgomery, Alabama, to learn there’s been at least one widely documented lynching of an African-American in Oregon.”

When he brought the idea of a historical marker for Tucker to the city of Coos Bay, it was not immediately embraced by the entire community. There were concerns it might bruise the perception of the city and make it look like an evil place. Stewart encouraged people to see heroism in the act of commemorating Tucker instead of shame.

Stewart told them, “Rather than being the community that lynched a man, you can be the community that reconciled a lynching.”

At a certain point, a compromise to create a small, bronze plaque on the ground seemed likely, but eventually support for the full-size upright marker won out. An essential step toward realizing that goal manifested in February 2020. The spectacular results of that project are inside the museum, and we will get to those details soon, after a few (OK, quite a few) detours. To be continued.

With the city’s support, the museum was not only able to permanently place the marker in front of its building, but also to hold a special dedication ceremony as part of a new program to publicly celebrate Juneteenth.

The language at the end of the marker that addresses “all unknown victims” was important to Stewart, who wrote the text in collaboration with the Equal Justice Initiative.

“I think that given our history, we would be remiss if we believed that there was only one lynching of an African-American in the state of Oregon,” Stewart recently said.

Black people were not legally welcome in Oregon until 1926. Years before Oregon became a U.S. territory in 1848, settlers began adopting exclusionary laws that demanded whipping, forced labor, and expulsion of Black residents.

“When the slaves were made free by the Emancipation Proclamation, those slaves were free to become American citizens everywhere except for one place – the state of Oregon,” Stewart said.           

In his speech for the dedication of the Tucker historical marker, Stewart linked the legacy of lynching in America to the disproportionately higher number of Black men who have been executed by capital punishment. “Lynching never ended,” Stewart said. “Lynching simply moved indoors, where all-white juries and expedited trials carried out the same verdict as the lynch mob.”

He described how the states that had the highest number of lynchings became the states with the highest number of executions, and how decreasing cases of lynchings directly corresponded with increasing numbers of executions.

He wanted to make sure the audience understood that merely learning about the facts wasn’t the same thing as building reconciliation. So he did something no one expected him to do. Rather than simply celebrate what they had achieved with the historical marker, he called the audience to action, imploring them to actively support ending the death penalty in Oregon.

The museum has no plans to join Stewart’s new campaign, but time will tell. He continues to raise the profile of the cause, speaking last month at the prestigious TEDx in Portland with an updated and expanded version of the speech he gave at the Coos History Museum last year. He wants to get a ballot initiative organized, for 2024 if at all possible.

Between the museum and the bay is a small boardwalk, a seawall, and a few feet of shore. Standing in the water itself are several sections of splintered wooden decking, broken planks, and orphaned wood pilings.

These are the final, deteriorating remains of what used to be called Central Dock, the muscular centerpiece of Coos Bay’s once massively successful lumber export business.

Central Dock opened in 1947 and stretched from the grounds of the museum through the new Coos Bay Village shopping center directly to the north. After World War II, there was an enormous international demand for lumber, with often as many as three oceangoing ships anchored at the dock, being loaded simultaneously.

“It was that way from the late ‘40s all the way through the 1970s,” said Steve Greif, a retired history teacher at North Bend High School and former board president and current exhibits committee member at Coos History Museum.

“When I grew up, there was a billboard put up by the Port of Coos Bay that said it was the largest lumber export facility in the world,” Greif said.

Yet as was the case with a lot of towns in the timber belt that had resource economies based on timber exports and commercial fisheries, it wasn’t sustainable. In the 1980s and ‘90s, a colliding assortment of factors — including economic recession and changes to international trade, forest management practices, technology, and environmental law — dramatically cut jobs and domestic production.

Scrambling, the operators of Central Dock kept solvent by inventing chip pile exports.

“They were the first ones to realize the value of chipping limbs and the extraneous small wood to make pulp. As I understand it, the first chip pile ever was right about where Coos Bay Village is now,” Greif said.

The chip business kept them going for a few more years, but by the 2000s Central Dock was bankrupt. Lumber exports ceased in 1992 and the lot sat vacant for decades. Not since the devastating Front Street fire of 1922, which destroyed a majority of the community’s businesses, had the area suffered such a defeat.

The dock’s grounds became a zone of historical slippage. It wasn’t the past and it certainly wasn’t any kind of a future. Flooding from the bay was common, and both sheltered and unsheltered residents loitered, spent the night, injected drugs, or otherwise escaped their lives, not far from where Tucker briefly escaped the mob that took his.

The current effort to revitalize Front Street, which the museum has been a key part of, includes the construction of new buildings, erecting fresh façades for existing buildings, and adding tourist-friendly novelties such as the city’s first drive-through Starbucks.

City Manager Rodger Craddock said things are going very well and the future looks bright for Front Street and Coos Bay. “Right now – and I think this has been echoed by our mayor – the kind of development that’s coming here today, we haven’t seen in 40 years,” he said.

But the town has been sweating it for a long time.

“Since the timber industry reduced its footprint here in the mid-80s, our community has struggled to define itself,” said Marcia Hart, director of the Coos History Museum.

“This economy has always been boom or bust, but there is no more boom,” said Leah Ruby, director of the Coos Art Museum.

Some residents are skeptical that a full transition to a tourist economy is feasible because the bay is too distant from I-5 and hubs such as Portland and Eugene. Furthermore, rising property values are intensifying the fear that hospitality and service industry jobs just can’t pay the bills.

The Central Dock remnants will be removed in the near future. Greif said it’s all slowly floating away and presenting a hazard to water traffic. Some visitors and locals enjoy the sight regardless. There is a strange, comforting beauty to the solemn, postmodern morass of the ruins. They speak to the parts in all of us that are broken and floating away.

The museum doesn’t own the dock — the state does — but it’s not an artifact, it’s the thing itself, finishing the last slip of its history.

Just inside the two-story entrance to the museum is a giant jellyfish sculpture suspended from the ceiling, its arms arched and its tentacles dangling toward the viewer, surrounded by the knotty cedar-paneled walls of the lobby.

Artist A Pollicino, who was the education director and programs manager for the museum from 2015-18 (and the first museum representative Stewart connected with about Alonzo Tucker), assembled this sculpture from found plastic, rope, and other litter and flotsam collected from the beaches around Coos Bay. If you look closely, you can make out soda six-pack rings and other familiar kinds of garbage mixed within it.

The huge bell of the creature has the color and texture of caramelized sugar, an interesting depiction for tissue that is often translucent in the wild, and here disguises a swollen mass of interior refuse. It’s a clever statement about veiled environmental damage and the microplastics contaminating marine life internationally.

Judges in a naming contest voted to title the sculpture Chōshi, for Coos Bay’s sister city and fellow fishing port on the southern tip of Japan. Japan and Coos Bay have a historically close relationship based around the export of timber, a tradition that continues through chip pile exports today. The Oregon Chip Terminal just north of town is owned by Japanese paper company Daio Paper Corporation, and for years the facility exported exclusively to a single mill in Japan.

Maybe Pollicino’s jellyfish is a protector or maybe it’s a sea monster, but the sculpture is not an artifact and it isn’t a memorial action. It falls into a different category of object for the museum, i.e. deliberate art sculpture, the only example on exhibit. The museum may see it simply as decoration for the lobby. It’s cool décor.

Some may be reminded of the largest living jellyfish species, the lion’s mane, which can grow as big as 120 feet from the tip of the tentacles to the top of the bell. Yet given the context of a history museum, it may be more appropriate to consider the species with the most interesting relationship with time: the Turritopsis dohrnii, more popularly known as the immortal jellyfish.

If its health or life is threatened, the immortal jellyfish can revert from the medusa phase – the sexually mature, tentacled phase – to an earlier stage of its life cycle called a polyp, and theoretically continue this development loop indefinitely.

You could wonder, under these immortal biological rules, how different would our opportunities be for justice, empathy, and unanimity?

You could wonder how strange history must be for something whose narrative cannot close, with innumerable chances to redeem its past, relive its future, or remake its foundation. Especially if it discovers the foundation has been laced with microplastics, soda six-pack rings, or other contaminants.

Adjacent to the lobby, display cases feature small temporary exhibits. There is a gift shop and a waterfront event room used for private functions and presentations for the museum’s education programming.

Upstairs are administrative spaces, with the exception of a raised walkway that serves as a mezzanine gallery for temporary exhibits that change every January. The walkway is open on each side with sight lines into the main gallery space below.

The building, which broke ground in 2011 and opened to the public in 2015, was designed by Seattle’s Signal Architecture + Research to evoke the style and airiness of a century-old wharf warehouse. 

A row of skylight windows lines most of the roofline to complete what is a beautiful architectural blend of vintage industrial and a contemporary lodge. It immediately became one of the most recognizable and bold structures in the Coos Bay landscape, as prominent as the anomalously tall Tioga building downtown, and certainly more striking.

The museum moved here from a much smaller, older building in neighboring North Bend that was musty, leaked, had poor HVAC, did not have onsite restrooms, and did not have enough storage space to house its collection.

A 1999 donation of almost a million dollars in Tootsie Roll stock enabled the museum to begin planning a move and thinking about the design of a new home. Excited by the possibility of a focal tourist attraction and anchor tenant for a re-envisioned Front Street, the city donated the waterfront land. Fundraising took many years, but other significant donors, notably the Coquille Indian Tribe, made the venture possible.

The entrance to the main gallery simulates a traditional Coquille cedar plankhouse using timber from tribal lands. Wood is conceptual connective tissue throughout much of the central exhibition space: what grew, what was harvested, what was built, what was exported, what sank, and what burned.

Mazes of wall text and saturated display cases are divided into the three geographic sections of seashores, tidelands, and uplands. Ephemera related to the timber industry is never far from view, including logging tools, chainsaws, log brands, spiked boots used by tree climbers, objects as tiny as a lumber company postage stamp, and installations as considerable as a full-size 1915 “double-cut” six-foot band sawmill.

Before the COVID pandemic, an interactive area encouraged children to build things using items one might find on a beach. Once that feature was removed for public health reasons, the museum replaced it  with an assemblage of driftwood branches, balanced against each other to make a symbolic shelter, not unlike those tourists create while playing near the ocean (when they’re not trying to balance rocks or search for agate).

There is no identifying wall text or label, and because it was made before Hart’s tenure as the museum’s director, she does not even know who made it.

So, it’s really just a space filler, but what’s interesting is the way it’s possible to see it as a comment on the collapse of the natural-resources economy. Here, the wood is important for its role as glorified pool toys. Instead of unsustainable cash crop exports, the wood is part of the mise-en-scène for tourist imports.

To the right of the driftwood display is the front end of the Coho troller. To the left is a fourth-order (medium size) Fresnel lens used for 84 years in the nearby Cape Arago Lighthouse.

Located in Charleston, the Cape Arago light was the second lighthouse in Oregon. The third version of the building still stands, but the site was de-staffed in 1966, decommissioned in 2006, and transferred to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians in 2013.

The lighthouse is a powerful vehicle for fantasy. Part of what is so appealing is the notion of a beacon to guide one to safety in combination with the idealized danger of a violent, opaque sea concealing unseen jagged channels (fog bank optional).

There is also the incredible aesthetic value of the lighthouse. An unwavering rigid column amidst a frame of horizontal chaos. A single beam of light, both constant and turning in a circle. The dazzling, hypnotic glass itself – especially a Fresnel, with its limitless concentric textures. And the circular rooms, haunted by a lone keeper, or, in contemporary lighthouses, empty of human hands and haunted by their absence.

The museum understands the potent fantasy value of the lighthouse, and understandably capitalizes on this, exhibiting the lens before a mock section of an interior lighthouse wall, with an illustration of Cape Arago’s rocky island shoreline behind it.

The vignette promotes a yearning for a loosely defined past — a fantasy past cobbled together and confirmed by the viewer’s own disorganized recollection from books, films, and personal experience. Perhaps the fantasy alternates, switching between romantic failure (a lonely, drowned death) and hard-fought victory (safety following adversity). It is a fantasy of both appearance and disappearance, like the blinking beam of the lighthouse.

Similar encounters with history may happen throughout the exhibit whenever an adventure is presented for the imagination. This could be as simple as reading about a collier with a stick of dynamite or reading about the more unusual adventure of beach “pirates” searching for the remains of shipwrecks on the shores of Coos Bay.

The spell of fantasy is broken when you encounter information about something like the unprecedented 1999 oil spill by the New Carissa. The spell is forgotten when you read about smallpox epidemics, the Nasomah Massacre, and Oregon’s Trail of Tears.

Yet there can still be intense poetry present in otherwise devastating accounts of history.

This is the case with the best single object in the museum’s collection, the first memorial gesture for Alonzo Tucker that Stewart, the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Coos History Museum collaborated on.

It’s a simple, clear glass filled with rich, dark brown earth.

The jar is in a case by itself, with text explaining it contains soil gathered from the location of Tucker’s murder. Like the historical marker, this is a project developed by the Equal Justice Initiative to document the geography of lynchings throughout the United States.

For this project, soil typically is collected from a single site. In this circumstance, Greif came up with the ingenious idea to expand the collection sites to three and more fully document the final hours of Tucker’s life.

On a cold February morning in 2020, Greif waited for low tide. Alone, he climbed under the docks to the place Tucker had hidden overnight, and with his hands, he gathered some earth. He went to the place on Front Street where Tucker was shot and where a noose had been wrapped around his neck, and Greif gathered more earth there. Last, he walked to Seventh Street, where Tucker’s body had been hung. The bridge is no longer there, but the earth remains. He took some and mixed the three soil samples together.

The public ceremony was held later that day, with all in attendance invited to transfer small portions of the soil into one of two matching jars, each etched with Tucker’s name. The first jar would join the collection at the Coos History Museum, and the second would be returned to Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama.

“I had the fortune of being the first person to put the soil in the jar,” Stewart said. “It was a huge relief. I’d been working so hard for a year and a half to make the soil collection happen, and I was so nervous. I honestly thought maybe 25 people would be there, and there were 200. It was in that moment that my eyes got a little watery.”

Greif remembers Stewart saying something that really stuck with him. “He said, ‘You can’t change history, but you can change your relationship with it,’” Greif said.

It was a turning point for the Coos Bay community and a turning point for the museum, an organization directly descended from a historical society formed in 1891 to focus more or less exclusively on the affairs of white settlers.

“It really has brought a lot of positive change to this community,” said Greif, who explained that it has encouraged people to be more open and inclusive. “As a museum it’s made us ask, every time we do anything, are we telling the whole story?”

The great success of the soil collection made it possible for the museum to move forward with installing Tucker’s historical marker outside. Greif also credits this work with leading directly to the museum’s collaboration with Oregon Black Pioneers to establish a marker for the Beaver Hill Mine and the more than 100 Black miners who worked there in the late 1800s.

“Steve Greif is great. He’s an unsung hero of all of this work. None of it could have happened without him,” Stewart said. “I’m proud the Coos History Museum has continued the racial reconciliation work in the form of the Beaver Hill marker.”

If you visit Coos Bay from the north, you’ll exit by heading back up the 101. Along the way you’ll revisit a memorable sight from your initial drive into town, right between The Mill Casino and the sign that reads “Welcome to Coos Bay.” You can’t miss it. It’s a giant orange mound squeezed between the highway and the water, decorated with towers and conveyors, and it’s stunning.

The original chip pile at Central Dock may be long gone, but three active chip piles remain in the area; this one, at the Oregon Chip Terminal, is the most visible. Residents like it. They like how it smells, and how in winter you can watch fingers of steam lift from its huge hills and valleys.

Wood chips are exported to make pulp for paper products. They’re created from trimmings, such as bark and tree limbs, removed at a mill before sawing timber. There leftovers traditionally were thought of as useless byproduct. Mills used to just burn the stuff.

If a piece of dimensional lumber is the residual of a single tree, chips are the residual of the logging process itself. They are the symbolic remnants of two histories, natural and industrial, the memory of trees and the memory of a thinning economy in a coastal community, gathered and reordered to make something new that leaves the origin unrecognizable.

To tell history is to create narrative. To tell local history is to grapple with autobiography. One purpose of the narrative is to foster a feeling of closeness with the past. It is a story that proposes to show us who we are by telling us “this is who they were.” Are they familiar, familial, or just causal?

Do we continue to remain connected to the behaviors of our predecessors or just their bloodlines? Or is it just the landscape we share with them? Mud flats and decaying docks and orange mounds next to the highway.

The chips will be getting on a ship. They won’t be staying here. Will they become Amazon boxes? Tissue paper? History books? These little shreds of history, what will they become?

Jordan Essoe is an award-winning artist and writer who has exhibited and published internationally. His career began as a painter, but his practice broadened to include film, performance art, playwriting, and journalism. His work has been covered by NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oakland Tribune, Artnet, Artillery, Art Practical, Art Week, and Rhizome.

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