Does This Look Like Goodwill?

One of the major projects I’m tasked with at work is preparation for the move of all artifacts. And since I’m in charge of documenting which box every single object ends up in, I’ve been going through all the catalog records to put together a database to track everything for the move. In normal museums, stuff would already be catalogued in a database. Here in the alterna-universe in which I work, that never happened. Why? Probably because it makes sense to do it that way. By best guesstimates, there are about 25,000 objects in the museum’s collections. But nobody knows for sure because there are only 300 entries in the database. Everything else is recorded only on paper in a file cabinet, making any research awfully time consuming if I’m looking for any specific object. I have to trawl through every single piece of paper in a four-drawer file cabinet until I stumble upon one that may or may not be the exact item I seek. So far, I’ve been hunting for three whole days for one specific artifact in our collection and I still have no idea where it is. Only once I find the paper catalog record will I be able to track it down in the collections storage room.

And oh how informative those records are. I thought I’d share with you some of the catalog cards for the more significant items in our collection.

  • unknown metal object, heavily corroded
  • electric fan
  • lid for pot, has metal handle
  • white cotton tote bag, “Tis a Mark of Distinction to be a Reader of the Reader’s Digest”
  • keychain given to new bank customers, Wells Fargo bank

I’m glad the museum is a repository for such historically significant artifacts junk. It’s as if the museum served as an alternative Goodwill all these years, taking the crap that people wanted to get rid of. God forbid someone actually throw out a precious “trash can lid, broken handle.”

Did Twitwit Set me Up?

Today was the museum’s first special event that I had to work. Special event is code for fundraiser, by the way. And also “special” in that, ahem, special sense.

My sole responsibility was to pull together a mini-exhibit. Just an exhibit case or two with some things that Twitwit had arranged to borrow for the event. Except it was like pulling teeth with her. I couldn’t get a list of what objects were coming, any photos of the loaned items, forms to document the loans, what the objects’ dimensions were, or anything else. She brushed it off every time I asked her, reassuring me that it was just “some stuff, nothing major.” Okay. Kind of makes it hard to write and create exhibit labels and copy, decide what visuals I will need, and which cases I’ll be using. I tried my best to convey to her and to my boss that I really, REALLY would need to know the details. The Boss’ response? Work that out with Twitwit, I don’t know what’s on its way over. Gee, thanks.

The worst part about it was that Twitwit told me the woman who was lending these items had been out of town for weeks and would be returning only on the afternoon of the event. Even though it would be tight, I had to figure out a way to pull this off. This is, after all, my first chance to make an impression on not only The Boss but also the museum board members, volunteers, and guests who were all paying to come to the event. An exhibit, even a small one, is a very tangible and outward expression of my capabilities and skills, and it was really important to me that it be done well.

So I spent the week researching the topic, devouring everything I could get my hands on. I made arrangements to borrow items from folks other than Twitwit’s Batman-esque lender as a Plan B. I wrote the text, printed, mounted, and trimmed all of the labels. I made scans of photographs and reproduced archival items to enrich and contextualize the items that would be displayed. But despite my best efforts and advance preparations, the mini-exhibit could not have been worse.

When I arrived at work early this Saturday morning, I found out that I was expected to somehow magically move all three exhibit cases from storage to the exhibit display area all by myself. Neither The Boss nor Twitwit had arranged for any help, even though I had been led to believe that hefty volunteer manpower would be made available to me. So Twitwit and I heaved all three cases into place. Then I proceeded to spend the next few hours carefully placing the backdrops for the cases, inserting the object mounts and labels and the graphics and text panels. Because I did not want the contents of each case to be disturbed before the arrival of the objects, I went ahead and secured the EXTREMELY HEAVY vitrines to the bases. And then I waited for the lender to arrive. And waited. And waited. As the afternoon was drawing into evening, I ran back to my office and retrieved my Plan B items and began assembling the displays using what I already had on hand. Unfortunately, I only had enough objects to fill out two display cases but with an hour to go until the event’s start, nobody could be bothered to help me remove the final exhibit case, and so it stood empty as I tried to figure out what to do.

Twenty minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, Twitwit called me to say the objects were here. Not wanting to miss this opportunity, I hurriedly tried to place what I could in the cases, but the public began to filter through the exhibit, so I had to abandon my efforts. In the end, the third exhibit case stood all by itself, completely empty. For all I know, no one else noticed the empty display case. But I knew it was there, and I felt humiliated that I had failed to complete my task adequately and furious that the event had such poor advance planning.

At the close of the evening, Twitwit approached me with a woman, the lender of the objects that had arrived with only 20 minutes to spare. I said “Oh, Thank you for lending us your objects. I guess your flight cut it pretty close, huh?” And she looked at me puzzled. “What do you mean?” I said, “I understand you’ve been out of town and didn’t arrive until this afternoon, but I really appreciate you making these items available to us, even amidst your hectic schedule.” Her reply? “Um, I got in a few days ago.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever know if Twitwit knowingly set me up to fail, or, as I suspect is more likely, she’s simply so disorganized and irresponsible that she unintentionally misled me, but lesson learned. I’ll be making my own arrangements as Plan A from now on, rather than relying on my coworkers’ (mis)information and the Boss’ utter lack of support.

The Path Ahead

I have a lot on my plate at my new job already. Working at a local history museum on a very small staff, I have several job duties, one of which is managing, researching, and creating exhibits. This is the most challenging, but also the most exciting for me. The museum has two exhibits. The first is a permanent exhibit whose purpose is to orient visitors to the overall history of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The second is a space for changing exhibits that examine one aspect of local history in greater depth. Today I wanted to familiarize myself with the information presented in the permanent exhibit.

I took several hours to read every panel, examine every object, scrutinize every caption, and capture the overall themes. Here’s what I learned: Praise be to Jebus that Whitey came to the desert to wrest it from the hands of those savage Indians so that we could get on with the construction of banks, the creation of a fire department and finally, proper civilization, finally delivered via Ta-DAH! the railroad! Which naturally led to the great city we live in today.

Oh, jeez. Lots of issues here.

One. The underlying overt message is that this place was nothing before the arrival of the White Man. White Man came, He built buildings, He created local institutions like schools, and on the 7th day, He brought air conditioning. In actuality, this area has been inhabited for over two thousand years by prehistoric and diverse peoples who created complex societies and managed to thrive in an extremely challenging desert environment. As they now stand, the exhibits promote THE (singular) Local History (That Matters). There’s no room to accommodate multiple cultures and histories. Which is a big problem since the museum wants to grow its brand and audience. First there is no “The” local history. Loads of folks would find nothing they can identify with in these displays. Their predecessors endured discrimination, racism, and exclusion. Everyone took different paths to the present — to suggest otherwise does a disservice to our audiences and to the communities, families, and individuals who experienced things differently. And second, the history told here tells us nothing of how the Phoenix metropolitan area differs from, say, Lincoln, Nebraska or Denver, Colorado. It’s the same old, same old. People came west, they settled, got rid of Indians, and created a lawful society out of nothing. So what makes Phoenix worth knowing anything about? I’m afraid that the museum visitor leaves the exhibits unable to answer that question.

Two. The inevitability of the narrative. That this is just how things happen, Once the White Man arrived, of COURSE we would become a major metropolitan and highly successful city. I mean, how else could it have happened?! Above each section of the exhibits hang banners that reinforce this problem. They are: Orientation, Settlement, Civilizing, Sophistication, Romanticizing, and Modernizing. The narrative is one that reinforces an old school history — that A led to B, which predictably led ultimately to Z, & that’s how it happened — isn’t America great! The problem being that there is no inevitability. Modern historians would instead frame local history in themes, examining the interplay of complex processes like gender, class, ethnicity, American imperialism and hegemony, environmental context and cultural accommodation.

Three. Where’s the 20th century?! The second half of the permanent chronological exhibit spans from the arrival of the railroad to a mural and display that showcase current businesses, sports teams, and attractions. Huh? The valley saw unprecedented 20th century growth and in the span of just 100 years went from a population of 5,554 to about 4 million. Today, the urban land sprawls an area the size of Rhode Island. Since the majority of the metropolitan population here comes here from elsewhere, you would think they’d be interested in the patterns that have drawn so many families just like their own to the valley over the past 100 years. These exhibits don’t even mention any such exponential growth. If anything could be dubbed “the” story of this place, that’s it.

Four. Minorities in a Box. The museum only pays lip service to anyone other than The White Man. The Orientation area is the only one to feature any Native American history and prehistory, but also problematically tosses Mexican Americans in the same spot and collapses prehistoric peoples in with modern-day Native Americans. The city’s multiculturalism isn’t examined again until the Sophistication area, which features a series of five or six small cases that showcase the city’s diversity vis a vis local businesses. A Jewish-owned jewelry store, an African American-owned restaurant. Token cultural diversity lip service at best. News flash: shout outs to ethnic businesses do not make multicultural history. I picture the exhibit developers sat around saying “Now what have we got in our collections that’s, hmmm, y’know, more, uh, exotic? Maybe we can use THAT to talk about, um, black history?” This speaks to a larger problem of collections development. Museums exhibit what they have in their collections, and if the items on display are any indication, this museum’s collections attest to the experiences of only a very small swath of society. In other words, if this is the best of what’s available to display to provide a sense of the diverse peoples and communities that comprised Phoenix’s history, then we’re in trouble.

Five. If I wanted to read, I’d be at a library. The text panels are wordy and try to tell the whole story. By setting up a narrative from “beginning” to “end” you’re reinforcing the narrative’s inevitability and further excluding multiple perspectives. And exhibits are just the tip of the iceberg. You can use a published museum catalog, educational programs, websites, and interactive displays to allow those who are interested to get deeper into the subject material. You don’t have to cover everything in the text. Not to mention that a lot of these stories strike me as unsubstantiated claims and vignettes that are not necessarily representative of any overarching narrative. Again, channeling the exhibit developers: “So, what can we display here? Well, we’ve got a bunch of train lanterns. Let’s do something with that!” And thus, the display of the assemblage of railroad lanterns was born.

Six. What is this stuff? Almost none of the photographs have attributions or captions. And almost none of the objects have labels. I’m wandering around thinking, What the HELL is THAT?! And I work here.

I also used this as an opportunity to spend a little time with my volunteers. After I had taken the time to explore everything on my own, I went through the exhibits with two volunteers to get their point of view. And they just gushed about how “pretty” that lace is and how we could “put more salt cellars up here, we’ve got a bunch of ‘em!” As we wound through the exhibit, we rounded a corner where you’re immediately struck with a display of a real, taxidermied ostrich. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this is here, other than the museum had one and wanted to display it. The volunteers dragged me straight to it. “See! This display just seems so empty now! We used to have [real, taxidermied] baby ostrich chicks around the ostrich and they were all standing in sand. But then sand mites started to attack and destroy the chicks, so we had to get rid of them! PLEASE bring back the chicks!” Um, yeah. Cause that’s exactly the problem. No ostrich chicks.

The long-term plans of the museum include a complete overhaul of the permanent exhibits, which will be my responsibility. I have a ton of ideas rushing through my head about how to transform this place from a yawn-inducing museum of Whitey, but it is going to take a lot of work to get there from here.

Swollen Summer

What’s it like living in the Arizona desert? Well, the first thing is the heat. Saying it’s hot is a bit like saying Bill Gates has money. True, but not nearly descriptive enough. The cliché is that it’s a dry heat. Yeah. So dry that water gets sucked out of the ground, leaving dissolved minerals known as caliche, an impenetrable layer, behind.

And so hot it’s like living on the surface of the sun. The first time I came to Phoenix was for a baseball game and it was 118°. Another time I burned my hand on my seat belt after getting in my car to leave the store. And the empty plastic Starbucks cup I left in my car’s cup holder? Melted.

But it’s not just the heat. It’s also the intensity of the sun. It’s sunny 295 days each year. I like to joke that people who don’t wear sunscreen every single day are turning themselves into human jerky. Or pleather.

It also makes it hard for me to tell what time of year it is. Flowers strained by the Death Star just bloomed a week or so ago. There’s no leaves crunching under my feet, and the morning’s “chill” simply means I gotta close my sunroof once in a while. It feels like an endless summer since I moved here, like someone forgot to tell Phoenix that it’s actually fall.

Nice to Meet You Too?

Note: Names & other identifying details in this and any future work-related posts have been changed.

Yesterday was my first day of work at my new job. Since My Better Half had gotten into graduate school, I’d been worried about finding work in my field, but was fortunate enough to stumble into a museum job at a small local history museum.

I was worried about running late, but I had plenty of time. When I got there, I waited for what had to be at least 10 minutes waiting for the Boss to come and get me. We spent the first part of the day going over the incredibly outdated employee handbook, filling out tax forms, and showing me around. Then we went to lunch.

I was looking forward to lunch because the Boss seemed cold and impersonal. I had hoped it was just a lack of coffee or stress about the other tasks she needed to get done, but I started to sense that this might be her truly unsociable self. At lunch it became apparent that her “I’m the Serious Boss” face was actually just her face. Our attempts to connect dissolved into trying to make conversation, which sputtered and stalled. She asked me what I like to do in my free time, and when I told her hiking, gardening, cooking, photography, all she muttered was, “Huh.” When I asked, “What about you?” she replied something along the lines of watching football, ordering pizza from Domino’s, and “oh, by the way, did I tell you I’m pregnant?”

Well, that explains the gigantic boobs, I guess. But no, she hadn’t told me that. And since she volunteered nothing more, nor offered anything else in the way of anything we had in common, I was left puzzling over this revelation. Okay, so she’s pregnant, I thought. How pregnant? Did she deliberately keep this from me in the interview/negotiation process?? And what does that mean for a tiny underfunded museum whose staff of four includes an executive director who is pregnant? Hmmmmm. Mental note: GET TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS ASAP. Is my old job still available?!

After lunch, she left me to my own devices for the rest of the day. Not even sure what I was supposed to, er, do, I shuffled through the files and re-arranged my new desk. Neither of the other two coworkers work on Mondays, so I just sort of sat there all afternoon, wondering “Is it me? Maybe I’m just being too sensitive.” Wouldn’t be the first time. At the end of the day, she said that she’d be a little bit late the next day, but that my coworker would be here to let me in. So, I left thinking, well, maybe we got off on the wrong foot but tomorrow’s a new day.

Today I got in early, and my coworker came to the door, a 50-something dressed in a puffy teen way-too-short bubble-butt skirt and dingy-looking stained t-shirt. I had my hands full of stuff that I had brought in to the office — pictures, my coffee mug & coaster, my iPod speakers, some books — and I was sweating, since it’s still hotter than hell here. She mumbled something as she opened the door and I immediately noticed a weird facial tic. She kept rolling her eyes back in her head and rapidly fluttered her eyelids as she spoke. While I stood wondering what lingering drugs induced her strange tics and twitches, she picked up a digital camera and took my picture. As I stood in the hallway, sweaty, and holding an armload of stuff. I asked her what she was doing, and she said, “Oh! Just gotta finish up this museum newsletter and wanted your picture for it.”

Um, could I put my things down and get a retake on that after I’ve retouched my hair & makeup?? “No, this is fine.” Then she asked me about my background, but clearly only as a vehicle to open up a conversation about HER overblown expertise and qualifications. When I (regrettably) asked her to clarify an artifact conservation technique she had “researched” for her Master’s thesis, she barked, “YOU work in collections. You should KNOW what that is.” I shall dub her Twitwit.

Quite a social bunch I work with, you might say. Needless to say, I’m a little worried. The Boss, is neither affable nor approachable, and is on her way to a maternity leave, and Twitwit is….um, weird. I just hope my only other coworker is normal.

Please to Explain, PHX

Since moving here, I have been completely baffled by all of the tanning salons everywhere. We get more than 300 sunny days a year. Why do you need a tanning salon? It doesn’t make any sense.

On second thought, I think that I’ll open up a chain of tanning salons. They’ll just be a facade. You’ll walk through a door, and it will just be a roofless enclosure.