A Tale of Two Museums

Now that I’ve been here at my museum job a couple of months, I’ve started to realize just how much work lies ahead. I was lured here to a small local history museum with the promise of what’s to come, the vision that strategic planning was well underway and that plans were being laid to get us from Point A to Point B – from a museum that presents outdated (and just plain inaccurate) history to one that will become a place for people to explore this region’s diverse peoples, cultures, stories, and communities. But now that I’m here, it’s clear that I stand on the edge of a vast chasm between where we are now and where we want to be. It’s hard to see how we can manage to raise the funds needed to completely overhaul all of the exhibits, expand our building with new construction, and become a “top tourist destination” (truly, that is an official strategic planning goal) when we rely on volunteers to kindly donate basic office supplies like pens and paper.

I wondered if the museum’s past could shed any light on this. Had the institution successfully overcome such daunting challenges in its past? The short answer: hell no!

I started my investigation by listening to volunteers. Some have been with the museum for over a decade and I learned a lot from talking with them. The biggest theme running through all of my conversations with them has been that they all long for the good ole days, the way the museum used to be. The way they described it, it was like where I stood was the site of a bomb blast and all I saw were charred remnants of what once was. It became clear that the museum they cherished had somehow changed dramatically, and they were skeptical of where the museum was going. While no one articulated exactly what had changed, or in what ways, I sensed that they felt that the museum had lost its way.

I wanted another point of view, so I went to the Boss. Her take helped shed light on specific events that rocked the institution. The museum always faced enormous financial hardship, but in the 1990s, things went from bad to worse. The museum’s then executive director wanted to spend his way out of irrelevancy. He took on a mountain of debt to finance a staff that grew to dozens, hired professional consultants for (incomplete) exhibit development and (poor) design, and boosted morale with extravagant staff happy hours, with the museum footing the bill. By the time of the executive director’s sudden death, all staff had been let go, and the museum was taken over full-time by unpaid volunteers. For years, these unpaid volunteers ran the museum and made enough headway on keeping collections agencies at bay that the board was finally able to hire a full time executive director (the Boss) in the mid-2000s. Since her start, the Boss has worked tirelessly to reduce the museum’s debt load, halting all purchases and expenditures save those deemed absolutely necessary. Which explains why we kept a wish list for basic office needs so that volunteers could provide our supplies, like paper for the copier and pens. And why the museum went 18 months as a staff of three before I was hired.

Things were getting clearer for me. The volunteers resented their loss of authority and power and felt displaced by paid staff after they had spent years running every aspect of the museum. The staff struggled to establish professionalism in a museum that had relied on well-meaning volunteers who, in reality, had no business running a museum. In an effort to re-draw boundary lines around responsibilities, tasks and duties that the volunteers had handled became staff-only and the staff began to exclude volunteers in strategic planning, branding, and institutional goals.

But things finally became clear to me after I stumbled on an institutional history of the museum. The museum was founded 80 years ago as a pet project by a woman who started a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Her thinking was that any “real” American city should have a museum. While she meant well, she had no business running a museum. She ran off early supporters of the museum (who went on to found the Heard Museum) and struggled to garner financial and community support. She failed to establish a mission for the museum, and as a result, the museum never developed any identity or brand. At the same time, she wrote a museum charter that requires (to this day) that the museum maintain formal affiliation with the local DAR chapter. She failed to steer the museum in the right direction and ran it into the ground for 60 years before her daughter took over for the next 20 years, until the museum finally hired its first museum professional. It was run by professionals for only a few years before volunteers again had to pick up and dust off the flailing organization.

Is it any wonder that today the museum faces such enormous challenges? Today we want to escape the DAR image of celebratory Whitey history, a move that will alienate the very constituency that currently supports the museum. At the same time, the museum must escape this Whitey-centrist interpretation to gain any semblance of professional respect and to expand its base of support, increase its audiences, and be taken seriously. The stories that the volunteers hold dear are the very ones that construct this mythic narrative of conquering and “civilizing” the west. The museum that the staff envisions is miles away from the one that is, and the museum that the volunteers value is one whose time has passed.

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!

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.