Community Invited to High Desert Museum for 40th Anniversary Festivities

((L) Some Zombies, (R) Superthrive by Stephen Hendee)

The High Desert Museum will welcome the community on the evening of Friday, May 27 to celebrate four decades of serving the region. The 40th Anniversary Community Celebration kicks off at 6:30pm, offering the first glimpse of a new exhibition and featuring beverages from Central Oregon’s favorite brewers, food and more.

This year, the Museum celebrates 40 years since opening as a small natural history museum in a town of approximately 17,000. Evolving through four decades, it is now a nationally recognized, interdisciplinary institution offering original exhibitions, educational programs and endless moments of wonder.

“We’re excited to look back at 40 years of curiosity, inspiration, wonder and connection,” says Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. “Our staff, volunteers, curators and partners have nourished this unique place and the exhibitions and programs that we share, and we’re grateful to our dedicated and generous community.”

“Anniversaries provide the opportunity to look back at all that’s been accomplished and to celebrate together,” says Museum Board Chair Nelson Mathews. “And there is so much to celebrate! The High Desert Museum has grown into an arts and culture anchor, as well as an educational resource, for the entire region. I’m excited thinking about what the next 40 years will bring.”

The Museum was the vision of a young, Portland naturalist named Donald Kerr, who in the 1970s began rambling over the Cascades at every opportunity to take in the expansive vistas, rich cultural heritage and dynamic ecosystems of the High Desert. A teacher to the core, he envisioned a place to, as he said, “wildly excite and responsibly teach” visitors about the High Desert.

Kerr shared his idea about a museum that would explore the natural history and culture of the High Desert with anyone that would listen. Due to funding, he was told time and time again that his dream would not come true. Yet Kerr remained determined and passionate, and supporters were won over. Brooks Resources donated 135 acres of ponderosa pine forest on which to build Kerr’s vision. The institution opened its doors to the public on May 29, 1982.

Dignitaries came to Central Oregon from near and far to celebrate the opening of the Oregon High Desert Museum, including then-Oregon Governor Vic Atiyeh. A Girl Scout troupe of fourth-grade students from Bear Creek and Buckingham Elementary schools had the honor of acting as event greeters that day. For their efforts, Governor Atiyeh sat down and put his signature in each and every Girl Scout Badge Book.

Set on the 135-acre campus, the main museum building features walls constructed of lava rock gathered directly from the site and incorporates ponderosa pine columns harvested from the grounds. Paved trails lead through a forest to outdoor features such as the Miller Family Ranch, The Changing Forest, Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center and the beloved Autzen Otter Exhibit.

The original Museum indoor space included the Desertarium gallery displaying the reptiles and amphibians that thrive in desert landscapes. The Earle A. Chiles Center on the Spirit of the West was built in 1988, which includes the celebrated, permanent exhibition Spirit of the West, followed by the exhibit dedicated to the Native peoples of the Plateau, By Hand Through Memory, in 1999. The changing gallery spaces inside the Museum feature up to nine temporary exhibitions each year.

For 40 years, the High Desert Museum has enabled a deeper understanding of the region’s art, culture, history and natural sciences through the presentation and interpretation of visual art exhibits, historical artifacts, living history performances and wildlife encounters. In May 2021, the Museum accepted the nation’s highest honor for museums, the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal. The Museum now welcomes almost 200,000 visitors each year from all over the world.

Visitors will have the opportunity starting at the May 27 event to share their favorite Museum moments at the 40th Anniversary Reflection Station. Visitors will be invited to write down a special moment that sparked curiosity, opened a new world or connected them to something new. The station will be in the Schnitzer Entrance Hall and stories will be kept in perpetuity to be shared with future generations.

The Community Celebration will also feature the opening of a new exhibit, Lair: Light and the Art of Stephen Hendee. Walking into the enclosed gallery, visitors will be immersed in a futuristic world of light and sound with elements hinting at current environmental issues. The glowing, high-tech world of the Maryland-based artist explores the spaces in which we live, both physically and virtually. Lair draws inspiration from the High Desert landscape and uses lights, color and space.

Hendee serves as a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and his art has been on display everywhere from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to Meow Wolf Las Vegas. Hendee’s recent awards include a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts ArtWorks Grant.

Tickets for the Community Celebration are free and can be reserved online at highdesertmuseum.org/40th-celebration. Space is limited.

The High Desert Museum is grateful to the food and beverage vendors joining us for the Community Celebration, including Acme Hot Dogs, IndoDaddy and Kona Shaved Ice and Bend Cider Company, Boneyard Beer, Caboost Kombucha, Cascade Lakes Brewing Co., Funky Fauna Artisan Ales, Lava Terrace Cellars, Legend Cider Company, Silver Moon Brewing, Sunriver Brewing, Two Towns Ciderhouse and Worthy Brewing.

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