Imagine a World
January 29, 2022 through September 25, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has shaped our lives in so many ways, has precipitated a moment of asking questions—about who we are and who we want to be as individuals and as a society. It has highlighted the importance of community, and perhaps prompted us to reflect on the communities we want to be a part of and create.
While these questions are relevant, they are not new.
In the new, original exhibit Imagine a World, opening Saturday, January 29, 2022, the High Desert Museum examines efforts over the decades to create ideal societies throughout the Western United States—and what we can learn from them. And through an interactive element, Imagine a World gives visitors the opportunity to articulate what kind of world we want to live in for the future.
For generations, people have journeyed to the High Desert and Western United States with visions of founding their own utopias, ranging from the Kaweah Co-Operative Colony in central California in the late 1800s to the artistic and back-to-the-land communes of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Drop City.
The exhibition looks at the ambitions, intentions and outcomes of utopian and intentional communities across the West, delving into approaches ranging from ecological to spiritual to political. Some groups focused on creating an ideal society, while others searched for an idyllic place already in existence to call home.
Imagine a World explores four philosophies around community and how they’ve been put into practice. One is ecological laboratories, such as Biosphere 2 in Arizona. In that instance, eight people in 1991 sealed themselves for more than two years into a vast structure of glass pyramids and buildings. They were attempting to thrive as a closed ecosystem that could create its own oxygen and grow enough food to support the inhabitants. It didn’t fully succeed in those aims, but the facility continues to be a hub of scientific research today.
The exhibit also explores spiritually oriented endeavors, such as Oregon’s most famous (or infamous) intentional community–Rajneeshpuram. In 1981, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual teacher with an international following, left India for the United States. The Bhagwan and his chief lieutenant, Ma Anand Sheela, selected a site in Wasco County, Oregon, for their planned community, embracing narratives about an “empty” American West. Just a few years later, in 1985, the community collapsed. Objects in the exhibition, including a Rolls Royce from the same time period, will offer a closer look at the Rajneeshees and the community they sought to create.
The communes of the 1960s and 1970s are featured, as well. One such community is Drop City in Colorado, where residents lived minimally and communally, sharing money, clothing and food. They embraced geodesic domes, advanced by the architect Buckminster Fuller, as the building style that would make up the community. They constructed the domes from salvaged wood and scrap metal, taking pride in living off other people’s trash. While Drop City dissolved by 1973, ideas that germinated there continue to flourish today.
In addition to examining physical settlements, Imagine a World will feature several Native artists who envision alternative worlds and recognize the ways that cosmology, science and futurism have long been part of Indigenous worldviews and oral traditions. Called Indigenous futurisms, the artists imagine Native people well into the future, including in the realms of science fiction and outer space.
As the culmination of the exhibit, visitors will be invited to contribute what they believe should be included in an ideal society through an interactive, immersive experience.
“The history of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon’s High Desert led us to explore broader questions of communities,” said Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. “Imagine a World examines different groups that have come to the High Desert inspiring visitors to ask their own questions about what can community look like and how do we work to create it.”
Imagine a World will be on display through September 25, 2022.
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“The intentional communities featured in the exhibit all pose interesting questions. By exploring the ideas that inspired each group, we’re able to consider what we might learn from each society and imagine more possibilities. Ultimately, we hope the exhibition sparks conversations about what kind of world we want today.”
Laura Ferguson, Ph.D., Museum senior curator of Western history and curator of Imagine a World
Photo courtesy of the Deschutes County Historical Society, Bulletin Collection.