Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West - 2019 Winner of the WMA Charles Redd Award

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By Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D.
Executive Director, High Desert Museum

Two hydrogens and an oxygen, water is vital to every living thing. Its power is immense, allowing it to carve the landscape over time. Yet it is so much a part of daily life that we often take it for granted.

So central to life and livelihoods in the American West, water posed a perfect subject for deeper exploration. On April 27, 2019, the High Desert Museum opened Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West, an exhibit weaving together science, history, art and contemporary issues to explore the role of water in the High Desert’s past, present and future. The Museum is deeply honored to receive the 2019 Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence, presented in October at the Western Museums Association annual conference in Boise, Idaho.

Although water is often seen as a divisive issue, Desert Reflections focused on how it can be used to facilitate collaboration. From the exhibit development to the artwork to the visitor experience, collaboration across disciplines, artistic mediums, viewpoints and cultures served as a catalyst for new understandings of how water shapes the cultural and natural landscape of the American West. This interdisciplinary exhibition evoked meaningful reflection and dialogue about contemporary issues, increasing awareness of our shared role in the present and future of this region.

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With the support of an Oregon Community Foundation Creative Heights grant, the Museum commissioned contemporary artists to create works in response to the exhibit theme. Artists included visual artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc), composer Dana Reason, spoken word artist Jason Graham and multimedia collaborative Harmonic Laboratory. In April 2018, a multiday workshop and field trip brought these artists together with curators, a geologist, an archaeologist, ecologists and others to explore significant sites in the region related to water. Destinations spanned from Round Butte Dam and Ryan Ranch Meadow to Summer Lake and Paisley Caves. These shared experiences promoted collaboration between artists and scientists and created new avenues for artistic exploration.

The resulting multimedia artwork extended beyond the gallery walls to the Museum’s interior and exterior spaces, creating immersive visitor experiences. For example, Reason collaborated with an ecologist to compose music based on data from ponderosa pine trees, as well as from fire and water behaviors in the High Desert. Visitors could hear this music in an area of benches located outside on the Museum’s 135 forested acres, with it fostering an emotional response to such scientific knowledge. Farrell-Smith created visual art installations that connected the deep history of the Indigenous Plateau to contemporary issues. In addition to works in the gallery, her healing flag installation in the hallway to the Museum’s permanent exhibition on Plateau Indians emphasized collaboration and healing in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Jordan Cove Project, a proposed gas pipeline in Oregon. In total, the Museum featured 12 visual and performing art installations with this exhibition.

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Using three different basins—the Mid-Columbia, Great Salt Lake and Klamath—cultural and natural history interpretation enabled visitors to explore how organizations and individuals are collaborating  across diverse perspectives and cultures to find innovative solutions to contemporary water issues, including resource consumption, Indigenous sovereignty and climate change. For example, the exhibition highlighted the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s natural resource management approach, which innovatively incorporates First Foods and emphasizes collaborative efforts. Interactives throughout the exhibition increased visitor understanding of how water shapes the landscape and how their daily activities impact this resource. Building on the exhibition’s emphasis on collaboration, we invited visitors to use social media to express what water means to them. A live feed integrated their diverse perspectives into the exhibition content.

The Museum intentionally designed Desert Reflections for broad audiences. By integrating contemporary artwork throughout the Museum, incorporating art, science and history, and focusing on a highly relevant topic to our community, this exhibition created multiple access points for visitors with diverse interests and backgrounds. The broader hope is that it deepened the understanding of the shared landscape and our role in it.

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Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D., joined the High Desert Museum 11 years ago and became executive director in 2014. She earned her doctorate from University of Colorado Boulder in biological anthropology, conducting research that took her to Madagascar, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and China. During that time, Dana became inspired by the work museums do to energize and engage visitors with the learning and discovery of academia.

Under Dana’s leadership, the High Desert Museum has become a Smithsonian Affiliate, experienced record attendance and was a 2018 finalist for the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Dana serves on the boards of the Western Museums Association, the Central Oregon Visitors Association, the Deschutes Children’s Forest and Art in Public Places. She lives in Bend with her husband and two sons, and in their free time they ski, bike and run together.

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