What Makes a Place?

Interpreting the Five Oaks Historic Site

Banner image: Digital mind map by Lily Gaigg


What makes a place? Interpreting the Five Oaks Historic Site

Five Oaks Museum Community Gallery, May—June 2021

Curated by Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk and Jordan Rosenblum


How do we understand a place, especially one with multilayered history? What can place-based interpretation be when we approach a site as artists?

These questions were at the core of Interpreting Place, a graphic design course taught at Portland State University during the 2021 Winter quarter. The class was co-taught and created by adjunct professor Jordan Rosenblum, a graphic designer and socially engaged artist, and Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk, Five Oaks Museum Cultural Resources Manager.

Students spent ten weeks investigating interpretive approaches to this paradoxical site through a series of research activities and creative exercises. In teams, they created socially-engaged, site-specific installations that each responded to a different contemporary design theme and audience. The students also engaged in conversations with experiential designers, content experts, and local community members personally connected to the site. The Museum played an integral role in the class, both by providing archival materials to inform student understanding of the site and by having staff visit throughout the length of the class to guide dialogue around the namesake Oaks.


Navigate through the gallery to see examples of student work produced over the ten week course. Click on each picture to see them full size!

Interpretation is conversation, guided interaction, or any communication that enriches the visitor experience by making meaningful connections between the messages and collections of our institution and the intellectual and emotional world of the visitor.

The Interpreters Training Manual, 2004

Scan of a newspaper clipping in Five Oaks Museum collection. The Oregonian, April 9, 1998. “Two oaks stand to become Five Oaks, once again”

Over the centuries, people, plants, and animals have all come together under the Five Oaks. Chatakuin (place of heavy mortars) was a site of annual return for the Tualatin Kalapuyans, who harvested acorns and camas here amidst a vast Oregon White Oak savannah. After their forced removal, fur trapper and pioneer celebrations took place under the trees until they eventually became surrounded by farmland. Today, the Five Oaks are located in a commercial business park; one 500-year old tree still stands.

The Five Oaks historic site is located in the Helvetia/Hillsboro area of Washington County, off of Brookwood Ave and Highway 26. Learn more about the site here.

Gathering Place

Composite of student work by Stephanie Quintero-Rojas

Composite of student work by Stephanie Quintero-Rojas, Roxy Ratzow, and Anna Ross

The Gathering Place student team explored how food could serve as a cross-cultural connector. They proposed a series of annual festivals that would activate the site around shared meals and in celebration of Indigenous foodways. Their design included an onsite edible garden and an oak table embedded with information about the site’s history that could be used by casual visitors, business park employees, museum staff, or festival goers.


Children's Exhibition

Composite of student work by Rosa Phan, Itchel Gaona-Miranda, and Josue Martinez

Composite of student work by Rosa Phan, Itchel Gaona-Miranda, and Josue Martinez

This team designed educational playscapes that empowered children to be equal participants with adults in their learning about the site. The playscape is meant to mimic the oak savannah habitat that Oregon White Oaks are native to. The scavenger hunt was designed as a digital augmented reality (AR) app to guide visitors through the natural ecological features of the site.



Student concept work by Nicole Tong

Composite of student work by Kofi Hesslup, Randy Chong, Yongao Liu, and Nicole Tong

Team Sculpture investigated how to create an intimate environment despite the site’s location in a business park. Their “hedge row” perimeter buffers sound from the nearby Highway 26, and is designed to create a calm space ideal for reflection. The team proposed working with Native artists to create outdoor sculptures which honor Tualatin Kalapuya lifeways and the history of the Five Oaks.



Student concept work by Jose Mendoza

Composite of student work by Noel Anderson, Lily Gaigg, Jose Mendoza, and Jon Buck

The Signage team was challenged to think beyond traditional panel-based interpretation. Their design included an interactive timeline on a clear digital touchscreen, which acts a “window to the past” and is programmed with video recreations of the site throughout time. The team added seating shaped like logs to memorialize the four original oaks that have since fallen.


Creative Work

Student work (clockwise from top left) by Lily Gaigg, Jose Mendoza, and Noel Anderson

Throughout the course, students were encouraged to make their own connections to the Five Oaks site by reflecting on the places they’ve lived and formed relationships with. We used a series of creative exercises to draw out the student’s unique interests, and to demonstrate how understanding this particular site could also relate to their personal lives and histories. We also challenged them to imagine what the site might look like 200 years into the future.


With gratitude

This class was made possible by a community of colleagues and friends who generously visited the class and offered counsel, suggestions, and insights into working with such a broad and complex subject. You know who you are and we deeply appreciate you.

We especially want to thank our PSU student collaborators for their imagination, creativity, and willingness to experiment with us:

Anna Ross

Itchel Gaona-Miranda

Jon Buck

Jose Mendoza

Josue Martinez

Kofi Hesslup

Lily Gaigg

Nicole Tong

Noel Anderson

Randy Chong

Rosa Phan

Roxy Ratzow

Stephanie Quintero-Rojas

Yongyao Liu