For 40 years people have visited the High Desert Museum in Bend and come away with a sense of discovery, a flash of joy, a new connection to the land, its people and its past.
It is the emotional response felt at the High Desert Museum that keeps people coming back,” said Dana Whitelaw, the museum’s executive director. And it’s all thanks to the vision of the museum’s late founder, Don Kerr, who, after being told countless times, persisted and ultimately brought his vision to fruition.
Kerr first opened the museum on May 29, 1982, 40 years ago. At the time, there were 5,500 square feet of indoor exhibit space and a handful of outdoor and indoor live animal exhibits. The museum celebrated its 40th anniversary by unveiling a new exhibition titled “Lair: Light and the Art of Stephen Hendee”. The celebration also included a memory sharing station where customers and supporters were invited to write memories that sparked joy and wonder.
Today, the High Desert Museum has grown significantly, with over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, animal habitats and trails on 135 acres. It has since become world famous for its cultural, natural and artistic exhibits honoring and educating on the arid high desert plateau.
According to Whitelaw, the High Desert Museum provides an interactive, multi-disciplinary experience for people to learn about the High Desert, all with the goal of moving towards a better future. It is a place of art and culture and a haven where the different people who make up the High Desert community can come together to learn from each other and work towards solving contemporary issues in the area.
True to its heritage
Kerr, founder and visionary of the High Desert Museum, liked to say that the museum serves to “wildly excite and responsibly teach our visitors,” and that this vision and passion for learning remains strong 40 years later.
Kerr died in 2015. A lover of wildlife and especially birds of prey, he is the namesake of the museum’s Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.
“We invite people to explore and it elicits an emotional response,” said Whitelaw, who holds a doctorate in biological anthropology.
Whitelaw came to the museum as a child and understands the power of the museum and why people can’t help but come back to it.
“It’s because they had an emotional experience here, whether it was joy or wonder or a tragic story that connected them to something happening now or in the past,” Whitelaw said. .
“There’s this moment of wonder and awe and discovery that really catalyzes learning,” she said. “And this museum puts all its effort into doing so. Whether in the gallery or in the field, in connection with natural or cultural history, or with contemporary communities. »
Whitelaw said the museum has big plans for the future, which include expanding its artistic offerings in addition to creating an environment for mutual learning and problem solving.
Creating a meaningful institution is more than a goal, it’s the realization of Kerr’s dream, Whitelaw said.
“We truly believe the High Desert Museum can impact the community as the largest arts and cultural center east of the Cascades,” Whitelaw said. “And that this region of Oregon and the High Desert deserves this kind of center.”
Kerr loved the High Desert with a fierce passion, as did his wife, Cameron Kerr, a self-proclaimed “desert rat,” president of current collections and a member of the museum’s board of trustees. She said the High Desert Museum was originally intended to be a small natural history center where people could learn about the natural environment. But it has become much more than that over the years.
“It’s a special place where people can come together, learn and share,” she said. “That’s where my kids grew up and that’s where Donny fulfilled his dream.”
Cameron Kerr said her husband always wanted the museum to be a place for conversation and dialogue on contemporary issues.
“And the fact that you can bring all of these cross-disciplinary perspectives together…and learn from different perspectives and have that ‘aha’ moment where you can connect with someone as another human,” she said.
Cameron Kerr said that given the division of society today, now is the time to bring people together, and the High Desert Museum plans to be part of the solution.
“It’s something that has to happen. Especially in our time now. We have so many challenges ahead of us,” she said. “Having a place where we can have conversations. The time has come, the time has come when everyone must get involved. It’s really exciting, I’m really happy to be a part of it.
In the 1970s, young naturalist Don Kerr approached a local timber executive, Mike Hollern, about a wacky idea for some sort of museum, Hollern said.
Hollern, chairman of Brooks Resources, said he admired Kerr’s purpose, passion and drive, but he didn’t have high hopes for the young man and his dream of building a museum in the center of the ‘Oregon.
Hollern wondered how something like this would be funded, where it would be built, how it would be built, what it would look like, so he challenged Kerr to come up with a real plan.
“I said ‘thank you very much and good luck,'” Hollern said of her first business meeting with Kerr. “And I assumed I would never see him again.”
But Kerr returned to Hollern about a month later with his plan. He had even raised some money, a development that caught Hollern’s interest.
The two men talked about the museum again, and Hollern told Kerr he needed to raise about $500,000 to get things done. A few months later, he came back again, with the money. Amazing, thought Hollern. So he decided to lease the land where the museum now stands from Kerr.
“Every time I challenged him to do something to make it happen, he succeeded,” Hollern said. “I was constantly amazed at how successful Don was in both fundraising and creating this museum.”
“One of the key things that he and his wife Cameron really brought was an exquisite sense of taste,” Hollern said. “They didn’t compromise on anything.”
Hollern, who served on the museum’s board for many years and is now a life trustee, said Don Kerr was not good at speaking or presenting his ideas, but his passion and commitment to the High Desert Museum are what got people supporting it. and his vision.
“It was a remarkably successful institution and it still is,” Hollern added.
Jay Bowerman was part of the High Desert Museum from the very beginning. His job was both communications director and public education program coordinator. He was there when the museum’s first pair of otters escaped, and he physically captured the porcupines for the museum early on.
Bowerman also spoke about Don Kerr’s commitment to his vision and said he succeeded in part because he felt there were no barriers that couldn’t be overcome.
“Don was doing his homework, but he wasn’t particularly smooth with his delivery,” Bowerman recalled. “What he would end up doing is he would kind of go into a vision, but it wouldn’t be detailed enough, but it would kind of be talking until the person started offering to fill in some of the gaps. And it sucked people in because all of a sudden they were offering an idea and Don was jumping on it and saying “yes! That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.
“And that was a way to get them to join because they accepted what they envisioned doing there,” Bowerman said.