Museum's exhibit on Eugene's civil rights history goes digital

Racing to Change poster

To help meet the challenges of a global pandemic, the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History is unveiling its first fully online exhibit, “Racing to Change: Oregon’s Civil Rights Years – The Eugene Story.”

The digital exhibit mirrors the brick-and-mortar version the museum opened last fall in concert with the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center’s grand opening. Co-developed with Oregon Black Pioneers, it chronicles the civil rights movement in Eugene during the 1960s and ‘70s, illuminating legacies of racism and the ongoing efforts of Oregon's Black communities to bring about change. 

In March, COVID-19 forced the temporary closure of the physical exhibit along with the museum’s other public spaces. Recognizing the importance of Oregonians' continued access to exhibits on Black history and culture, racial justice, and civil rights activism, the museum moved quickly to transform the exhibit into a dynamic, online experience for the UO community and the wider public.

“In the months following the opening of the physical exhibit, we heard again and again from visitors that they hadn’t known about Eugene’s civil rights movement or how the state’s markedly racist history made that movement a necessity,” said Ann Craig, exhibitions director at the museum. “Feedback like this bolstered our resolve to keep these stories front and center even as the pandemic temporarily shut our doors.”  

Craig said that George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the ensuing nationwide protests further clarified the urgency of amplifying Black voices and encouraging dialogue about racial justice.

“Museums have a responsibility to do this kind of work, whether or not our physical spaces can be open to the public,” Craig said. “Going digital was a necessary response.”

The digital exhibit presents photographs, videos and historical archives along with lively interpretive text and graphics. Firsthand accounts from movement organizers, former UO students, elected officials and other members of Oregon's Black communities paint a picture of the area's past and urge visitors to take part in building a more just a future.

The museum and Oregon Black Pioneers recently accepted a 2020 Oregon Heritage Excellence Award for their work on the exhibit, which prioritized outreach to local Black community members and centralized Black voices throughout exhibit development process.

Oregon Black Pioneers board secretary Gwen Carr said that the exhibit helped cultivate trust between the museum and Eugene’s Black communities.

“The community has expressed pride that their story is being told and will get a great deal of visibility,” Carr said. “One visitor stated their appreciation that ‘the invisible is becoming visible.’ This simple observation fulfills a major goal of this exhibit.”

Jon Erlandson, executive director at the museum, said it has been a privilege to provide continued access to such important stories.

"In its new, virtual format, ‘Racing to Change’ will reach an even wider audience than before, encouraging greater understanding and connection during this socially distant time," he said.

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History