Category: Landmark Place
GPS Coordinates: 43.9659867, -121.3416745
Nestled among the Ponderosa pine trees just outside Bend, Oregon, is one of the state’s best known natural history attractions. The High Desert Museum takes a engaging approach to interpreting central Oregon, a region where different ecosystems and cultures meet and blend.
The museum uses elements of both the natural and cultural history to provide a holistic examination of what the area looked like in the past and what challenges are ahead for a sustainable future. Exhibits are designed to be immersive, providing guests with new sights, sounds and smells while engaging them both intellectually and emotionally. The museum has both permanent and changing exhibits, the latter offering up to nine new experiences on a variety of themes every year.
“What we weave into all of this are living history characters. During your visit you might come across a pioneer settler or a miner or someone who fought in the Civil War,” Dr. Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, told the Oceanscape Network during our visit in the summer of 2015. The living history characters will often engage in activities which would be commonplace during different eras of the past. Some may tend gardens or cook, while others will play games or provide demonstrations of various handicrafts.
“Our actors are very good,” Dana smiled. “It’s very, very difficult to get them to break character. They really try to talk to our guests as though they’re visiting from another time.”
While the living history programs are extremely popular, Dana notes that most guests come for the museum’s many species of native animals.
“The high desert extends from the southern part of British Columbia to the northern part of Arizona, so a really vast area full of diverse landscapes,” said Dana. “It’s arid, not lush like the west side of Oregon. Things here are more subtle and nuanced. Animals have developed different strategies for surviving in this environment.”
The Autzen Otter Exhibit has been a highlight of the museum since it first opened its doors in the early 1980s, providing a naturalistic enclosure for North American river otters with both above ground and underwater viewing areas. The exhibit underwent an extensive renovation and reopened in May 2016. Nearby is the Desertarium, an indoor exhibit which describes the unique survival strategies of the high desert’s turtles, frogs, salamanders and fish. Displays contain everything from the common king snake and sagebrush lizard to the threatened Gila monster and desert tortoise. Museum staff and volunteers will also host short “show and tell” experiences where guests are invited to observe or even touch some of these desert species.
During the summer months, the Raptors of the Desert Sky program enthralls visitors when four bird groups — hawks, owls, falcons and vultures — fly free through a forest glen just a few feet above their heads. While watching the grace and agility of these birds is thrilling, the program also educates guests about the hunting strategies and natural behaviors of these animals. After the show is over, guests can wander over to the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center for an extended look at these animals plus an exhibit on the the American bald eagle.
The raptors were deemed non-releasable after suffering a serious injury or were rescued from individuals who had taken them from the wild as “pets.” The museum educates the public, including school groups of all ages, about the importance of high desert ecology, respecting wild species and preserving natural habitats.
“One of the things the museum does really well is provide moments of wonder and connection,“ Dana said. “That’s really the power of museums. They provide that hook to get you interested and motivated to learn more.”
The High Desert Museum is located at 59800 South Highway 97, Bend, Oregon. Additional information about the museum, including hours of operation can be obtained by called (541) 382-4754 or visiting them online at www.highdesertmuseum.org.