Growing up in Central Oregon, some of my earliest memories are of my Mom walking me though the winding cement paths of the High Desert Museum. Surrounded by tall pine trees and eyelevel sagebrush, the first stop was always the otter exhibit, where Bert and Ernie, now both long deceased, frolicked in their high desert habitat with a full imitation lava-rock underground viewing tank that I pressed my chubby pink cheeks against on every visit.
On my recent tour of the museum with PR manager John Furgurson, I had a full sensory flashback. The soundtrack of the full-time "Spirit of the West" exhibit is the same as it was 20 years ago; the wooden wagons, the leather moccasins, and the tribute to early surveyor John Frémont are still punctuated by a screeching eagle, the sound of wind rustling the plains of the high desert and a horse neighing in the distance. The wooden abacus is still in the old west bank, and the mine zone, dark and dank, with clinking pipe echoes, flickering lantern lights and long-decommissioned railcars, is still moderately terrifying.
But not everything is identical to my memories of Bend's largest museum. A host of new exhibits, new wildlife and a new president—who took the reins last week—are giving the museum a fresh flair. Dana Whitelaw, former grant writer turned Programs Manager for the museum—a young and passionate brunette who did her graduate work with lemurs in Madagascar—is replacing Janeanne Upp, who retired last December after serving as president for six years. Upp helped the museum achieve its highest ever attendance numbers and overcome the organization's long-term financial debt in 2013. Whitelaw plans to continue in Upps' footsteps with high-quality programing and the tradition of preservation and education at the High Desert Museum.
"Connecting people to the natural and cultural world is a huge benefit for any community," said Whitelaw when prompted about the importance of the museum. "Taking information and research and stories that researchers gather and getting that out to the public is a great way to make informed citizens who can critically think, and are knowledgeable about the area."
With Preservation and Education in Mind
The High Desert Museum grew from the roots of the Western Natural History Institute, started in 1974 by Donald M. Kerr, a Portland native, biologist and general lover of birds of prey and natural history. The idea was "simple," as Kerr described it, "The better people know this region, the better equipped they will be to decide the course of its future."
The museum officially opened on May 30, 1982, as the Oregon High Desert Museum, nestled on a 135-acre plot of pine trees and sagebrush just south of Bend, "closer than you think," as its slogan now resoundingly reminds visitors.
"1976/77 was this huge moment in American history," explained Kelly Cannon-Miller, executive director of the Deschutes County Historical Society. "It was the bicentennial, so there was a huge emphasis on history at that point. Lots of small historical societies around the country were founded leading up to that."
The Deschutes County Historical society was founded in 1975, and Cannon-Miller explained that the two organizations have lead parallel histories in their 30-plus year lifespans—one examining hyper-local history, and the other expanding to a larger region of the intermountain west.
That expansive landmass extends from the eastern side of the Cascades to the western slope of the Rockies and up into the southern part of British Columbia and down to the northern part of Arizona.
Now home to more than 29,000 historically categorized objects, a permanent collection that depicts the early century facets of the old west, an otter, a bobcat, free-flying owls, hawks, falcons and vultures, and a humidity and temperature controlled vault of historical artifacts, the museum is by far the largest in Central Oregon, a massive resource for the region, and the only one of its kind documenting the history of the high desert.
What are we Preserving?
Middleton, Wisconsin, is home to the National Mustard Museum. Roswell, New Mexico, has the UFO Museum and Research Center, and Stratford, Connecticut houses the Garbage Museum. What are we preserving in Central Oregon and the intermountain west, if not beer, bicycles and rusted Subaru parts?
"Its about our connection to the past and the land and the animals," explained PR manager John Furgurson during our tour. "Around here, everyone moves from somewhere else, so people don't always have that appreciation for the area. They don't know much about the geography or the geology, or the history about the people who populated it."
One of the goals of the new president is to show these lesser-known historical elements, the animals and the land in captivating ways.
"Wildlife and natural history are a lot more subtle in the high desert," explained Whitelaw. "It's not the rain forest where there are bright yellow snakes dripping off of trees; things are more nuanced, things are more camouflaged. For the museum to present those in a really obvious and compelling way is incredibly important."
The way the museum approaches its presentation of the arid west is academic but accessible, and with a keen eye toward the future.
"Once you're exposed to seeing those objects or wildlife closer, your eye is more keen and you're more connected to it," said Whitelaw. "I like to think of those like gateway animals, not like a gateway drug, but kind of similar in a positive way. You connect to the otter and it's the way you become aware of healthy watersheds and where these animals live."
Currently, the museum is home to two large permanent exhibits, and over 40 wild animals, all of which were either raised in captivity or have been injured and are unable to survive in the wild. A new Wildlife Forensics exhibit put together with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., the only lab of its kind in the world, opened on March 1. Other rotating exhibits encourage a complex understanding of regional history and its many facets.
"Walking in to the Plateau Indian bags exhibit [Woven with Tradition, on display through March 30] there are so many components of learning," said Whitelaw. "From the techniques they used to the symbols to how they were used from a utilitarian component. Museums become the repositories of those memories and collections and it's our job to present them and to make them relevant to people. It's a different kind of education."
Scan the Teepee
The irony of museum technology isn't lost on Whitelaw and her staff. Many museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and The American Museum of Natural History, have started using iPads and apps as a tools to enhance their tours.
Problem being, iPads are designed for individual use, said Whitelaw, and aren't as helpful to a museum that explores landscape and wildlife. On top of that, many parents bring their children to a place like the High Desert Museum to avoid screen time and the world of omnipresent touchscreens.
"OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) is a lot more inclined in that way because of the tech focus in a lot of their exhibits. Our focus is more natural history so it doesn't lend itself in the same way," said Furgurson. "We all dream of the day when there's an iPhone app and you can hold it up to the teepee and Siri will come on and give you the verbal rundown of what the teepee is all about, but it's not our focus now."
However, Whitelaw and her team also understand the importance of adjusting to the times, and the first step for HDM is to draw more of the ideal Bend demographic, the 30-something working fulltime and recreating on the weekends, a group they see surprisingly little of at the museum.
Night at the Museum
While the museum does well with families with young children, and retirees who have time during the day to visit, Whitelaw said they are missing a key demographic.
"Many people won't come because they think it's taxidermy animals and dusty old things in cases," said Whitelaw, "But what makes museums special is not only the content and knowledge they keep, but the memories they create, the experiences and dialogue. There's a big movement in museums to think of it as a third space, like a coffee shop or a place where you would go to see music. It becomes a museum-going habit. It's not just a special occasion just when you have folks in town."
For now, the High Desert Museum might be a seventh or eight space (if that) for most, but Whitelaw is confident that its Natural History Pubs on the second Tuesday of each month at McMenamins, Open Till Dark events (the next one is on May 30) where the museum will stay open late for nine to fivers at discounted prices, and acquisition of relevant exhibits will draw the interest of the average Bendite. When a potential beer, bike or outdoor recreation exhibit was brought up (the three keys to any public programing in Bend) Whitelaw smiled and explained that the museum has already caught wind of the Oregon trends.
"Funny you mention that," she said knowingly. "Those are three topics we have programing planned for. We have a brewing exhibit this winter and, in true High Desert Museum style, there will be a historical aspect looking at prohibition and early stills and the community that's rallying around brewing now. We also have a winter recreation exhibition planned and we have one of the early ski lift chairs from Sun Valley where they had the first chairlift in North America."