Donald Kerr of the High Desert Museum
As a young man, Don Kerr described himself as a “desert rat.” Raised in Portland, he entered Oregon State University as a biology major in the late 1960s and joined a group of students who, every chance they got, headed east over the Cascade Mountains to explore Oregon’s high desert. They loved the sagebrush plains, wide-open blue skies, rim rock vistas, and unique plants and wildlife — especially the birds of prey that soared overhead.
Kerr was the only desert rat, however, who transformed his love of the region into a world-class museum. Set on 135 acres outside of Bend, the High Desert Museum, founded by Kerr in 1982, was one of the first in the U.S. to incorporate interactive exhibits, living history and live animals in a museum setting. Visitors to the High Desert Museum today can enter a 1900s-era cabin and meet the family who lives there, walk through the dusky cold of an iron ore mine, watch a fence lizard lunch on a cricket, or peer into the eyes of a great horned owl.
This was Kerr’s dream—to transcend the traditional museum that displayed artifacts behind glass and, instead, to awaken people to the natural world. Kerr conceived of the museum in the late 1970s, after graduating from Oregon State, when working with birds of prey at the Oregon Zoo, and leading desert field trips for university students. He imagined creating an attraction that would entertain but also foster stewardship.
“Don wanted people to appreciate what was around them and become involved because of what they had discovered, not what someone told them,” said his wife, Cameron.
Kerr had a knack for fostering interest in his dream. Cameron recalls “deals over dinner,” during which friends and supporters arrived skeptical and left promising money, time or both. Remarkably, this took place in the late 1970s, when Bend was not yet a destination, but a small town struggling to survive on the remnants of a timber economy. With his passion, Kerr won people over one by one. In 1982, the High Desert Museum opened its doors. A major expansion took place in 1989, by which point the Museum was seeing 100,000 visitors per year.
In 1995, while working with a great horned owl, Kerr sustained an injury that changed his life. The bird’s talon pierced his skin through a hole in his glove, and Kerr contracted viral encephalitis. The encephalitis left Kerr disabled and unable to continue to lead the museum. He is wheelchair-bound and cannot speak, but his mind remains “sharp as a tack,” Cameron said.
Despite his absence, the museum continues to grow. Today, The High Desert Museum includes 85,000 square feet of indoor exhibits connected by a quarter-mile trail winding through the landscape it celebrates. The newest permanent exhibit, the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center, houses birds like spotted owls and golden eagles both indoors and out.
As the High Desert Museum nears its 30th anniversary, Cameron said her husband remains honored and proud. He is most pleased, she said, when he hears testimonies from visitors. “More than anything, he wanted this to be the people’s museum. I really think that’s happened.”
About the Author: Kim Cooper Findling
Kim Cooper Findling grew up on the Oregon Coast but became a Central Oregon girl in the mid-90s, taking in the sunny skies and never looking back (expect a few wistful glances at the ocean). She is the editor of “Central Oregon Magazine” and the author of “Day Trips From Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler” and “Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir.” Catch her around the state sampling microbrews, hiking river trails, taking silly pictures with her iPhone, and camping with her husband and two daughters in the family tent trailer, Brutus.
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