Last November, visitors to the 75th anniversary program at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene were promised a historical surprise. While the museum’s director stood at the podium, long dead Oregon geologist Dr. Thomas Condon came flying out a side door with a bag in hand, handed the director his hat and spattered off a story about how he had just came from the coast.
Hart–who was acting as Dr. Thomas Condon (for who a hall was named after on the University of Oregon campus)–then walked around talking to guests. He was a living exhibit; much like the character Robin Williams played in Night at the Museum.
To keep him out of trouble, Hart says he was assigned a geologist to help answer questions, “I think I didn’t get in any trouble about the geological knowledge of the time. My assistant was able to answer questions I couldn’t.”
For the program, Hart, who normally has a trimmed beard, had to grow his facial hair out. In addition, he worked with a member of a local theater, and read about Condon. The program took months to prepare for. Hart says, “If I did all the programs I liked to, I’d never be doing my job.”
As an executive director of a museum, Hart says he stays pretty busy. Currently, the museum is looking at moving downtown, which he says would provide more space and better foot traffic than the museum’s current location at the fairgrounds. For the museum’s small staff of 9, this would be a hard move, especially because the museum would need to stay open during the move, says Hart.
Hart’s interest for museums started young. Growing up in New Jersey, Hart’s first field trips were to the American Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium. Hart says “Early on, somebody told me that you had to look carefully in the dioramas, because the curators always stuck something in there that was special but it wasn’t the main thing that was in there…so, I was always running around looking for the other thing in the exhibit.” Among others, these two places are places Hart would like to see again.
Before becoming a museum director, Hart earned a master’s degree. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1969 before going to graduate school for the first time. He attended Washington State University thinking that he was going to be “the world’s greatest archeologist.”
It was here that Hart met his wife, sitting behind her in an anthropology class. She was at the tail end of her program and he was just starting. Hart says, “I probably made the smartest decision I’ve ever made and I decided to pursue her rather than the degree.”
Hart eventually went back to school pursuing a master’s degree in American history. After several jobs he was hired by the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which was new at the time. The fourth person hired, he was the most senior curator at the museum when he moved to Oregon. Hart moved because he was offered the executive director position at the Lane County Historical Museum. Additionally, Hart moved because he and his wife thought that the education system would benefit their two daughters, though he says that it was a “terrible time to move an eighth grader. She said we ruined her life.” Both daughters are now in college and Hart is about to complete his eighth year at the Lane County Historical Museum.
Impersonating historical figures is something that’s relatively new to Hart. He added it to his resume in 2009 when a friend asked him to play Joe Meek a trapper, mountain-man and the first sheriff in Oregon. Hart acquiesced, accompanying his friend–who played Meek’s friend, Robert Newell–to the sesquicentennial. Then he created a program by himself, which he preformed at the Oregon Historical Society.
Recently, Hart impersonated Meek again. This time it was at the National Trappers Association’s western regional convention held in late June. “I just trimmed my beard on June 25 because on June 24, I looked like Santa Claus. Out of my perimeter vision I could see my beard,” says Hart.
But Hart says he enjoyed playing Condon the most and would like to play him more in the future. Hart becomes animated when talking about playing Condon. As he tells of the evening of the 75th anniversary program, his speech speeds up, his smile seems permanent and his arms start flying in illustration, “I handed my hat to Jon [the museum director]…and my bag and just said, ‘You know, I’m just back from–I think I said Florence–and I have some exciting news and then I pulled out some fossil and started talking about it.'”Click below to hear audio: