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Hollywood on the Highway 

High Desert Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw brings the sizzle

  • Christian Heeb

"It's a transformative experience for people."

Dana Whitelaw's eagerly explaining her museum philosophy. "I firmly believe that," says the High Desert Museum's executive director. "The way that our permanent exhibitions are immersive scenes. They put the visitor in the place and time without a ton of panels to read. It's more about the experience than reading a novel written by a curator."

Immersive. Scenes. Experience. Whitelaw uses words normally reserved for movie directors and video game creators. "'The Raptors of the Desert Sky' program is a good example of that," she says. "Where we hike the visitor out and fly the birds through the forest over their head as opposed to just having the static exhibits."

Nothing static about that.

Whitelaw, an Oregon native who grew up in Eugene, did her undergraduate work at the University of Montana. She already had an interest in studying non-human primates. Her hero? Jane Goodall, whom she kept track of through National Geographic magazines at an early age. "I became interested in anthropology—specifically physical (or biological) anthropology— and started doing field work," says Whitelaw. Not just with non-human primates but the American dipper—John Muir's favorite bird."

She would eventually live in Madagascar, studying ring-tail lemurs for her dissertation. Whitelaw, the daughter of a university professor, seemed headed for the same career path, but eventually decided she wanted something different. "Early on in graduate school (University of Colorado), I looked around and saw that a lot of the university knowledge and passion that professors and graduate students have is really contained within the walls of academia. And I was interested in moving that outside," she says. "Even though I had a fabulous college experience, I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if there was an avenue to bring that out?' And museums are a perfect vehicle for translating that."

Whitelaw arrived in Central Oregon 10 years ago as the High Desert Museum's director of programs. Still, she wasn't a stranger, having visited the museum often growing up. She became executive director in 2014 and immediately had to hire an entire senior team—who she credits for the museum's current success. "They have been amazing—and people tell you when you get the right people on the bus, amazing things start to happen and that's exactly what happened for us."

The museum received several national grants, including a STEM grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services for $250,000. It was also named a finalist for the National Medal of Honor. "Those achievements come from the decades of work that have gone into the museum—and being able to finally look above our walls," says Whitelaw. "It allowed us to look a little bit further and take some risks. I'm very grateful for the work that went into the museum before I got here."

The risks continue. Whitelaw's determined to open the museum up to everybody by featuring exhibits that tell "stories." It's that movie director's instinct again. "The museum field has been working on becoming places where audiences that come from all backgrounds see themselves," she says. "When you see yourself mirrored and elevated to that level of recognition, you feel comfortable. You feel welcomed. It's an interesting place. It's relevant because they're telling 'my' story. And that's not true for a significant part of our population."

So, just like the entertainment industry, get set for a little museum diversity. "We're making some very conscious programming choices," says Whitelaw. So far this year, that includes hosting exhibitions such as "Blake Little: Photography from the Gay Rodeo," highlighting a little-known LGBTQ story of the American West.

"Through the photography, and then through a series of programs we've been hosting—lectures and a screening of "Queens and Cowboys"—it's starting to do what we're hoping to. It's attracting a different audience that's not going to come for a more traditional museum show. But when things become a little bit more interesting—if it's something you don't know about or it's your own story in a museum setting, that can be really meaningful."

To that end, the museum recently received an Oregon Cultural Trust grant for exhibits and programs that highlight the LGBTQ community and Native youth, as part of a Cultural Diversity Initiative. "That's a badge of honor for us," says Whitelaw. "They recognize that this is important work that we're doing."

Upcoming projects include an Edward Curtis photo exhibit opening in the fall, a proposed gallery dedicated to the art of the American West, and "Ascent: Climbing Explored," a mountaineering and rock climbing exhibit currently on display through September.

The High Desert Museum

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