For 40 years, people have visited the High Desert Museum in Bend, Ore., and left with a sense of discovery, a flash of joy, a newfound connection to the land, its people and its past.
It’s the emotional response felt at the High Desert Museum that keeps people coming back, said Dana Whitelaw, the museum’s executive director. And it is all thanks to the vision of the museum’s late founder, Don Kerr, who after being told no countless times, persisted and eventually brought his vision to reality.
Kerr first opened the museum 40 years ago on May 29, 1982. Back then, it was 5,500 square feet of indoor exhibit space and a handful of outdoor and indoor live animal exhibits. On May 27, the museum celebrated its 40th anniversary by unveiling a new exhibit entitled “Lair: Light and the Art of Stephen Hendee.” The celebration also included a memory-sharing station where patrons and supporters were invited to write down memories that sparked joy and wonder.
Today, the High Desert Museum has grown much bigger, boasting more than 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, animal habitats and trails on 135 acres. It has since become world renowned for its cultural, natural and art exhibits honoring and educating about the arid High Desert Plateau. According to Whitelaw, the High Desert Museum provides an interactive, multidisciplinary experience for people to learn about the High Desert, all with the intention of moving toward a better future. It is a place of art and culture and a safe haven where the different people who make up the High Desert community can come together to learn from each other and work toward solving the region’s contemporary problems.
Living up to its legacy
Kerr, founder and visionary of the High Desert Museum, liked to say the museum serves to “wildly excite and responsibly teach our visitors,” and that vision and passion for learning holds strong 40 years later.
“We invite people to explore and that invokes an emotional response,” said Whitelaw, who holds a doctorate in biological anthropology .
Whitelaw came to the museum as a child, and understands the museum’s power, and why people can’t stop coming back.
“It’s because they’ve had an emotional experience here, whether that’s joy, or wonder, or a tragic story that has connected them to something either that’s happening now, or in the past,” Whitelaw said.
“There’s that moment of wonder and awe and discovery that really catalyzes learning,” she said. “And this museum puts all of its effort into doing that. Whether that’s in the gallery or out on the grounds, connecting to natural or cultural history, or contemporary communities.”
Whitelaw said the museum has big plans for the future, which include further development of its artistic offerings in addition to creating an environment of mutual learning and problem solving.
Creating an institution worth its salt is more than a goal, it is the realization of Kerr’s dream, Whitelaw said.
“We really feel like the High Desert Museum can make an impact in the community as being the largest art and cultural center east of the Cascades,” Whitelaw said. “And that this region of Oregon and the High Desert deserves that kind of center.”
Kerr loved the High Desert with a ferocious passion, and so does his wife, Cameron Kerr, a self-proclaimed “desert rat” and the current collections chair and a board of trustees member for the museum. She said the High Desert Museum was originally going to be a small natural history center where people could learn about the natural environment. But it became much more than that as the years went on.
“It’s a special place for people to gather and learn and share,” she said. “It’s where my children grew up and this is where Donny made his dream come true.”
Cameron Kerr said her husband always wanted the museum to be a place of conversation and dialogue about contemporary issues.
“And the fact you can bring all of these interdisciplinary perspectives together … and learn from different perspectives and have that ‘aha’ moment when you can connect to somebody as another human,” she said.
Cameron Kerr said given how divisive society is today, the time is now to bring people together, and the High Desert Museum plans to be part of the solution.
“It’s something that needs to happen. Especially in our times now. We have so many challenges ahead of us,” she said. “Having a place where we can have conversations. The time is now, the time has come where everybody needs to get involved. It’s really exciting, I’m really happy to be a part of it.”
In the beginning
In the 1970s, young naturalist Don Kerr approached a local lumber executive, Mike Hollern, about a farfetched idea for some kind of museum, Hollern said.
Hollern, chairman of Brooks Resources, said he admired Kerr’s goal and his passion and drive, but he didn’t have high hopes for the young man and his dream to build a museum in Central 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 ‘thanks very much and good luck,’ ” Hollern said of his first business meeting with Kerr. “And I assumed I’d never see him again.”
But Kerr came back to Hollern about a month later with his plan. He had even raised a bit of money, a development that caught Hollern’s interest.
The two men talked again about the museum, and Hollern told Kerr he needed to raise somewhere in the ballpark of $500,000 to get things moving. A few months after that, he came back yet again, with the money. Astonishing, Hollern thought. So, he decided to lease Kerr the land where the museum sits today.
“Every time when I challenged him to do something to make this happen, he succeeded,” Hollern said. “I was constantly surprised at how successful Don was at both raising money and creating this museum.”
“One of the key elements that he and his wife, Cameron, really brought to it was an exquisite sense of taste,” Hollern said. “They didn’t compromise on anything.”
Hollern, who was on the museum’s board for many years and who is now a lifetime trustee, said Don Kerr was not good at speaking or presenting his ideas, but his passion and commitment for the High Desert Museum is what swayed people to support him and his vision.
“It’s been 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 part communications director and part 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 in the early days.
Bowerman, too, told of Don Kerr’s commitment to his vision, and said he was successful partly because of his sense that there was no barrier that couldn’t be overcome.
“Don would do his homework, but he wasn’t particularly smooth with his delivery,” Bowerman recalled. “What he would end up doing, is he would sort of launch into a vision, but it wouldn’t be detailed enough, but it would be sort of talking around until the person would start offering to fill in some of the gaps. And it sucked people in because suddenly they would be offering an idea and Don would jump on it and say ‘yes! That’s exactly what we are trying to do.’ ”
“And it was a way to get them to buy in because they were buying into what they had envisioned happening there,” Bowerman said.
Kerr died in 2015. A lifelong lover of wildlife and particularly birds of prey, he is the namesake of the museum’s Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.