OMSI’s Collections: Or, What’s with the Stuff in the Glass Cases?
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the comment, “OMSI has a collection?” in the twelve years that I have been at OMSI. In fact, OMSI’s collection is not small, consisting of 30,000 natural history, ethnographic, and historical objects grouped by donor into smaller collections.
Not only are OMSI’s objects historic, but the collections are historic as well. Many of the collections were originally donated to the Portland City Hall Free Museum in the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries. The local residents who donated the objects felt that they should be used as an educational resource for the community. These early collections included shells, rocks, fossils, and other natural history specimens. When the City Hall Museum closed in the 1930s, the collections gathered dust until some objects were transferred to OMSI in the 1940s. Although OMSI featured hands-on activities from the beginning, the museum was still very much a collections-based institution in those early days.
The collection continued to grow as donors offered OMSI their prized objects. The move to Washington Park in the 1950s afforded the collections more exhibit space than they have had before or since, including the Renton Room of rocks and minerals and the Hancock Room, which displayed OMSI’s impressive collection of fossils.
Today, we have a wide variety of objects. Most of OMSI’s collection is still weighted towards natural history, but we also have collections of historical objects, such as light bulbs, dolls, lantern slides, carpentry tools, watches, and electrical appliances. Cultural objects round out the collection, including archaeological artifacts, petroglyph casts, and ethnographic objects from around the world. People sometimes ask why we have collections of dolls or glass goblets or other random objects that don’t seem to fit with a science museum, and my only answer is that our collecting policy was very different in the past! But luckily there is science or technology in everything and this allows us to make an exhibit educational regardless of the type of object.
If you would like to experience some of our collections, you can find some objects on permanent display in the Earth Hall (rocks, minerals, and fossils) and the Turbine Hall (electrical appliances and Edisonia). Watch for a new exhibit of fluorescent minerals slated to open in the Earth Hall in the next several months. We also create displays for the two glass cases in the Planetarium hallway. These rotating displays are our chance to show visitors and staff some of the unique objects our museum holds in trust. The displays change every three to four months, so make sure you drop by once in a while to check them out!