The Details are in the Dirt: Scenic Elements in Experience Oregon

March 5, 2019

By Tara Cole

The 1220 Exhibits team carefully painted “Experience Oregon’s” unofficial mascot, Theodore the beaver. Painstaking care went into creating the scenic details throughout the exhibit, such as beaver teeth marks in this Douglas Fir tree. Courtesy Andie Petkus Photography 

The Oregon Historical Society’s new Experience Oregon exhibit is full of rich historical content — and, it is visually spectacular. It takes many talented individuals to build an exhibit, from writers to designers to fabricators. The fabrication process is critical to an exhibit’s success, and 1220 Exhibits from Nashville led the charge of bringing the team’s ideas to life. From building cases and artifact mounts to constructing the many scenic elements on view, they made our new permanent exhibit a reality.

Example of a case in Experience Oregon

The 1220 Exhibits team customized mounts for every artifact on display in “Experience Oregon” to create an illusion of artifacts floating inside the case. Courtesy Andie Petkus Photography

What many folks may not realize as they walk through Experience Oregon is the meticulous level of detail that went into developing each one of these scenic elements. 1220 Exhibits has its own in-house scenic department that moved out to Portland for over a month to finalize these real-life landscapes and visual elements. From recreating Fort Rock Cave in our intro theater; to building the road and railing scene surrounding the Benson automobile; to the plants, trees, ground forms, and barbed wire on view; this team created a captivating backdrop for experiencing Oregon’s history!

Faux barbed wire in Experience Oregon

This “Across Time” station in “Experience Oregon” explores the concept of home through three different stories. Here, the designers fabricated barbed wire out of rubber — an effect that is rightfully chilling for a story on Japanese incarceration during World War II. The barbed wire gives visitors a sense of the heaviness surrounding this part of Oregon’s history.

As a project coordinator for Experience Oregon, I worked closely with 1220 Exhibits and watched their scenic team in action. I even participated in the process to create the Western Red Cedar visitors see as they step out of the intro theater and enter the exhibit. It was imperative that the tree looked as realistic as possible, and as Western Red Cedars are not native to Nashville, this meant we had to take a field trip! In December 2018, OHS and 1220 Exhibits staff members took a trip to Washington Park in northwest Portland to take a mold of the bark on a live Western Red Cedar.

Getting a mold of the Western Red Cedar bark

This photo from our “field trip” to Washington Park shows the process of making the mold of the Western Red Cedar bark (and a knot on the bottom left). The tree was not harmed or damaged during the process.
Western Red Cedar bark mold

Here is one of the bark molds that we shipped to Nashville. The mold is rubbery when completely dried.

Once dried, the crew shipped the mold back to the shop in Nashville for replication. 1220 Exhibits then shipped the “tree” in multiple pieces back to Oregon, where it was assembled in the gallery. The on-site scenic team put the final touches on the tree by hand painting the bark, creating the illusion that a real life cedar was growing in the middle of the exhibit.

1220 Exhibits assembles the Western Red Cedar

1220 Exhibits shipped the “tree” to OHS in multiple sections and assembled on-site. Fun Fact: The tree hides a support column for the building!
The completed Western Red Cedar

The Western Red Cedar tree now stands near the entrance of “Experience Oregon.” Courtesy Andie Petkus Photography

Another intricate scenic element in Experience Oregon is the platform for the covered wagon in our collection. In OHS’ previous permanent exhibit, Oregon My Oregon, the wagon stood on a large carpet designed to look like a map of Oregon. In Experience Oregon, the exhibit designers wanted visitors to experience a scene representing the wagon traveling across the Oregon Trail.

Wagon before and after

A before and after of our covered wagon, first in “Oregon My Oregon” (left), and now as it sits in “Experience Oregon.”

While the wagon remains the same, visitors experience it in completely different ways. Rather than an oversized map, the wagon now sits on a platform covered with artificial dirt, ruts, hoof prints, shoe prints, and grass that are adjacent to a tile river that runs throughout the whole exhibit. While the concrete platform was wet, the scenic team used stamps they made out of wood to replicate footprints of people and animals who had walked along the trail. The ground form and prints were hand-painted to accentuate those details. The scenic team also designed the edge of the platform adjacent to the river to look muddy and wet — it is next to a river, after all!

In-process of hand painting footprints and wagon ruts

Here you can see the process of hand painting footprints and wagon ruts near the covered wagon in the new exhibit.
Completed ground form for the wagon

The 1220 scenic team designed the edge of the wagon platform to resemble a muddy riverbank. Here is a photograph of that finished design element.

We hope you come and visit Experience Oregon and keep your eye out for all the scenic elements throughout the exhibit. And be sure you say “hi” to Theodore the beaver!

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