Legal Mumbo Jumbo

I already have two immediate projects on my plate at my new job. One is that in a couple of months, the museum will start major building improvements. The museum is installing better climate control and compact shelving in collections storage, where all of the artifacts are stored. As a result, I will be in charge of managing and coordinating the move of all collections. We have to clear everything out of collections storage before construction and renovation can begin, and then move everything back in to the new shelves & storage furniture once the renovation is complete.

The second project is to research, write, and create a new temporary exhibit. In addition to the museum’s permanent exhibit, the museum opens a new smaller (1200 square feet) year-long exhibit on various topics. While the topic would normally be up to me, this time I’ve been handed the topic that previous curator was working on before she left. And it is

sorry, fell asleep there. The new topic is….yawn…Local legal history.

Just makes you want to jump up and down, doesn’t it!

I’ve spent this afternoon trying to discern what “local legal history” means, but I still have no idea. The way the Boss explained it to me was that the topic was already researched, an exhibit develop committee was in place, ideas had already been formed, the structure and content was being worked out. But all that’s in the files are scribbles and brainstorming notes from a couple of different meetings. There’s no overall theme or concept here. Some of the notes pertain to individuals who played a role in shaping local legal history — a lawyer who worked in water rights, a criminal whose case resulted in Miranda Rights, and a bio of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. There are print-outs of wikipedia articles on specific crimes that happened here, and a list of books about the Indian wars. I’m not seeing how this all relates. And it’s not a topic I am particularly interested in, nor sold on, which makes it hard for me to get other people excited about it.

It strikes me that this topic was chosen simply because it’s sensationalist and not because of anything particularly significant. Don’t get me wrong, there are juicy episodes here — murder, cases that set national legal precedents, and nefarious characters. But to weave together these unrelated episodes is artificial and contrived. I’m all about using the trees to present the forest — each display and topic relates to another and together, help to convey an overall point. But this? I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing here, and I’m unable to draw any conclusions from these tidbits. I mean what are we trying to say here? That Phoenix is riddled with crime, racist cops, and an unevenly applied justice system?

The bottom line is if I can’t wrap my brain around what the story is here, and I can’t be bothered to summon interest, how can I expect our audiences to do the same?

Still having no clue and no guidance for the museum’s legal history exhibit, I had asked the Boss for clarification on the idea behind the exhibit. As in, what is this supposed to be about? What was the thinking behind this, in terms of the overall concept or point? What she handed me was a one-page writeup that she had submitted as part of a small grant application. The writeup confused me even more. Basically it said that the exhibit would be about the “history of laws, vice and crime.” Okay….

Hoping for more meaningful advice, I turned to a discussion forum for help. I posted a question asking if anyone had any ideas on any themes or patterns I might expect to find? Like, do laws in western cities from the 1800s through today say something about the community, and what should I be looking for?

The responses nearly all started with, “I’m not sure what you mean by the history of laws, vice, and crime.” HA! Yeah, me neither!

Work. Sigh.

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, we had a staff meeting about the fallout from Twitwit’s firing. No juicy details, but this is going to be major. Until the museum hires a new education director, I am to take over that position. All duties, responsibilities, and tasks of the education department. On top of my regular job.  Which is the job of about 6 people. I’m the curator, but I’m also the registrar, collections manager, the exhibit developer, the volunteer coordinator, and the archivist/librarian. And now I’m adding another hat into the pile — that of education director. So here’s a (partial) list of my job duties, all of which are to be completed within my 40 hours per week (yeah, right.)

  • document all donations and loans to the museum
  • research all of the museum’s artifacts and collections
  • develop relationship with potential donors to encourage donations to the museum’s collection by attending meetings, networking, and correspondence
  • meet with donors to collect donations to the museum’s collection
  • data entry and database management for museum’s collections
  • research, develop, write, and present a Collections Policy to the museum’s board for formal approval
  • obtain and manage insurance for collections in preparation for collections move
  • manage ongoing digitization of photographs project and make available online
  • help researchers find the books, archival collections, and photographs they need
  • process photo reproduction orders
  • organize, plan, and closely supervise the upcoming collections move
  • get quotes for and order the new storage furniture for storage of all collections, plan the configuration for the new storage room
  • get dimensions for all items in collection to order storage boxes for all items for upcoming collections move
  • photograph all collections to document appearance and condition before collections move
  • attend weekly meetings for updates on upcoming building construction project
  • train & supervise 5 volunteers
  • grant writing
  • historical research on the region in general, and research on our collections
  • exhibit development for the next major exhibit
  • staff the admissions desk up to 24 hours per week
  • research and production of three 5-minute videos featuring local history
  • reservations and billing for all educational programs
  • deliver all educational programs, on site and off site, for children and adults
  • develop, plan, and run all girl scout programs
  • manage, organize, and staff annual Silent Auction fundraiser

After the meeting, I decided that one of the things I needed to get on top of (and fast) was the upcoming Education programs. So I went to Twitwit’s office to mine her files to find records of upcoming tours, dates, and content for each of the programs the museum offered. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I found almost nothing. I found no “scripts” or documents that covered the content of our educational programs. I found no records of upcoming school tours. I found no receipts or correspondence to indicate any loose threads I could pick up on. It’s not that we don’t have educational programs or upcoming school tours; we do. It’s that she didn’t keep any records of anything whatsoever.

Thanks, Twitwit. I’ve come back from my holiday “break” only to find that on Friday, I have to present an educational trunk show to 3 consecutive classes of over 250 students. But you left me no record of a) where this school is, b) what age group these children are, c) if the school has paid for this program, d) which trunk show they requested, and 3)the CONTENT of any of the educational trunk shows. I opened a document on the server today titled “Trunk Show script” and all that was in it were the words “Good morning boys and girls.” That’s it. That’s all that was there.

So I go to the Boss to let her know of this problem and her response? Consult the manual. Oh! I hadn’t THOUGHT of that yet! What a tool I am! I should just open the manual and there on page 3-34 will be the instructions. Except THERE IS NOTHING IN THE MANUAL. I already checked. I am a resourceful problem-solving person. I used everything I had at my disposal to try and answer my question before I decided to bother you with this to try and problem solve this conundrum. In pointing this out to her, she offered no assistance whatsoever in devising a solution. She simply shooed me out of her office so she could get back to staring at her laptop doing nothing, I guess.

So now I am spending the next 48 hours pulling my own artifacts from collections storage, researching and writing my own content, and developing my own trunk show after having called the teacher myself and sheepishly having to ask the following questions two days before the show: 1) have you paid? 2) what age(s) are these groups? 3) which show did you book? 4) where is your school?

I do NOT appreciate looking like an idiot and looking unprofessional. That really pisses me off about this place. I do my best to get my own work done, even when it means taking it home with me and working til 11 pm most nights and working at my laptop all weekend from my couch, as it usually does. During the week, my time is so fractured between managing volunteers who don’t follow the rules, running educational programs for fourth graders, collecting entrance fees at the front desk, and trying to fix the computers that don’t work so that I can do work that it’s hard for me to get any of my own projects done. It’s hard enough for me to manage the upcoming collections move and the upcoming exhibit, both of which I am ostensibly capable of. But I never asked to be a museum education director, have never done anything like this before, received no training, and continue to receive no support. But since it’s my responsibility now, the presentations and tours are a reflection of the institution and of me, and I don’t appreciate looking like an unprepared, unqualified idiot.

Can I run away? Fake my own death? I’ve already routinely been working well over my 40 hours each week just to get on top of my existing duties. And now I’ve got to figure out how to clone myself just so I can get adequate time off on my days day off. All without any additional compensation. I already work benefits-free — there’s no health insurance, no retirement, no fringe benefits. In a larger, better funded institution, one person would be dedicated full-time to almost each of my tasks and duties. But here, I’ve got to learn to juggle all of these different things and still expected to stay on top of a collection of 25,000 objects I don’t know and can’t track. Sigh. I would say I need an intern or six, but training them would just be more work at this point.

0.16 MPH

One of the sucky things about moving from a small town to a major metropolitan area is the traffic. Having just moved here a couple of months ago, I still don’t know my way around very well, so I’ve only figured out a couple of different routes between work and home. I had to close the museum today, so I didn’t get out until about 5:30. In normal traffic, it takes me no less than an hour to get home. But today’s the day before Thanksgiving and Arizona’s major airport lies between my work and my house. It took me 3 hours to get home tonight. That is not a misprint. Three FUCKING hours to go the 18 miles from my work to my front door. Sigh. I miss my small town life.

Twitwit: Quitwit?!

Today was possibly my best, and most unfortunate, day at work. I found out Twitwit had done something “for” me, as in taken the initiative a) to determine I wanted it done (by her freakishly inaccurate powers of mind-reading) and b) doing it, followed by c) neglecting to mention to me steps a and b. When I told her I was pissed, she became really defensive. Hit a nerve, did I?

Guess so, because only five hours later I watched Twitwit be escorted by the Boss from the building. Evidently, she had been given notice and decided to take preemptive action. By quitting. Effective as soon as she could pack her stuff in her office. Class act.

For an instant I thought, Oh Shit! I’d rather put up with her than cover her stupid work until we hire someone else. But then I realized that since she had left, I had finally relaxed, too. Bottom line is, I’d rather pick up her slack than put up with her.

So the good news? I no longer have to endure Twitwit’s antics. The bad news? See: good news. Until now, every day work had the promise of revealing a new Twitwism. Sigh. I guess now I’ll just have to mine the mentally unstable transsexual assistant for gems to put a sparkle on my day.

The Case of the Disappearing Goldwater Files

Barry Goldwater was Arizona’s golden boy. Ever the politician, he created a lifelong legacy by founding Arizona State University’s Arizona Historical Foundation, an organization dedicated to collect, preserve, and make available historical documents that address Arizona and Southwestern subjects.

barry-goldwater-portrait

So it’s a little ironic that the Arizona Historical Foundation has now closed off access to Goldwater’s own papers. Goldwater donated a large sum of money and his political and personal papers to the foundation in 1959, with no stipulations on access to his own files. Most recently, a journalist accessed Goldwater’s files to research an article in a local newspaper. His article highlighted Goldie’s personal unsavory conduct and received such ire from Goldie’s granddaughter C.C., a board member of the foundation, that she succeeded in having his papers sealed.

The Goldwater collection has seen alot of action since it was donated to the foundation. Researchers, academics, journalists, and the just plain curious have sifted through his papers for decades. Some of the resulting articles have aired Goldie’s political dirty laundry, like his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act or his steadfast support of McCarthy to the very end. Writers have pointed out how conservatives from all spectra of the right (old right, new right, and rabid right) alike stood by him. (And those categories pretty much take care of enfranchised Arizonans.) His politics were what made him Arizona’s golden boy, though. C.C. Goldwater had to draw the line at her grandfather’s personal dirty laundry.

From here on out, I guess if you want to know about Goldwater, the man, you’ll have to rely on C.C.’s own recent production, the HBO hagiography, “Mr. Conservative.”

Bite the Ballot

This year’s midterm elections in Arizona meant endless ads for any of the 95 offices and issues up for grabs. The ballot covered every position from governor to state mine inspector and included no fewer than 19 special interest initiatives. Arizona ballot initiatives provide an opportunity for regular citizens to participate in the democratic process . . . and it shows. The idea is so poorly conceived that it requires voters to vote yes or no on each issue, even opposing ones. So, yes, I’d like to ban smoking in restaurants. And yes, I’d like to allow smoking in restaurants. They are always (intentionally?) poorly worded, disenfranchising even the informed. But they do achieve their purpose. They allow all the regular multimillion dollar sleazeballs lobbies to participate equally in spreading rampant racism and homophobia (and generally corrupting the electoral process). I should have known this was a sign of things to come.

I received the early mail-in ballot only to discover a process even dumber than the proposition system itself. In order to select your candidate, you connect a broken arrow by drawing the line between the two points.

mail-in-ballot-picture

Cause they wanted to simplify the procedures, I guess. People had gotten too confused by circling the candidate of their choice or filling in bubbles. A side note: While the accompanying instructions clearly stated “Complete the ballot using no. 2 pencil or pen only. DO NOT USE RED INK,” the last page of the ballot itself read, “Use ink only.”

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.