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The Oregon Trail Reimagined

Posted On September 14, 2016 | 16:52 pm | by baileyt | Permalink
Karen Lewis on the Trail’s Evolving Identity

Familiar as a musty myth of struggle and American perseverance, taught for just a week or two in middle school, the Oregon Trail can sometimes be difficult to imagine in anything less than the broadest strokes. And yet, Karen Lewis, an associate professor of architecture at Ohio State University and a one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks in September, is attempting to do just that.

At a lunchtime talk on September 14, Lewis summarized her research on the trail, which attempts to move beyond a standard cultural interpretation of the space that she humorously diagnoses as “enthusiastic literalism.” On this reading, the trail is seen primarily as a tourist attraction, its length dotted with outsize bits of Americana: overscale wagon wheels, buildings fashioned as Conestoga wagons, giant statues of straining oxen.

Lewis has worked with extensive geospatial data, gathered from archival materials and contemporary maps and surveys, in order to revisualize the Oregon Trail as an infrastructural system. Looking beyond its boom period as a center of physical migration, she has focused on the trail’s evolving identity as an infrastructural core for other industries—from the mail services and railroads of the late nineteenth century to the oil, gas, and internet conduits of today.

Lewis, whose prior research has explored issues of architectural representation through graphic systems, displayed several digital maps and timelines of her own design during her presentation. The images—breaking down, scattering, and reinterpreting the trail, which appeared sometimes in the semblance of a bar graph, sometimes as a black braid against a white map—dispelled historical visions of the western trail, breathing new complexity into an old story.