Museum Moves

The Arizona Historical Society has its eyes on a new Rio Nuevo building by 2009

Though not quite as giddy as children on Christmas morning, staff members of the Arizona Historical Society are excited about receiving a large present in the coming years.

Currently located in a building adjacent to the UA campus, the society is pushing forward with dreams of moving its museum and state headquarters to a site in downtown's Rio Nuevo district, on the west side of Interstate 10 near Congress Street. According to Chief Administrative Officer William Ponder, the society is about to embark on a planning process with the hope of opening a new building by 2009.

"This is an opportunity for us to take those things we're not doing as well as we'd like," Ponder says of public accessibility and archival storage, "and improve on them." Plus, he adds, the current 50-year-old facility was originally a small building, which has had two major additions, creating a hodgepodge configuration.

In a few weeks, the local architectural firm of Line and Space will hold a series of planning workshops, then prepare a report by March. This $60,000 process, Ponder says, will allow the society to look at the organization itself as well as its future physical requirements.

"We'll be able to determine both our internal and external spatial needs," Ponder says, "along with the interpretive themes of the museum. In our minds, we need 50 percent more space than the present 80,000 square feet, but the final figure will come out of the process."

To pay for the new facility, the cash-strapped society anticipates applying for Rio Nuevo funding by the end of next year, which would cover one-third of the required capital expenses. To make up the difference, proceeds would be used from the sale of the existing building, possibly to the UA, combined with a fund-raising campaign.

Ponder also sees an opportunity for the society's museum to evolve. "It's important to have exhibits that are dynamic, diverse and speak to all portions of the community," he says. "They need to be more interactive, because it's a proven commodity that folks like to touch history."

Highly respected Southern Arizona museum director Tom Peterson started at the society as a 19-year-old summer library intern in 1957, and became a full-time employee six years later. He remembers how exhibits were once displayed.

"The main hall of the building back then was empty except for tables and cabinets lined with artifacts," he recalls. "They were under florescent lighting and had type-written labels. That was state of the art at the time."

Now, Peterson says, things have changed. "Interactive exhibits are really a way to enrich the museum experience as generations go along and the viewer is further removed from what they are looking at. As technology improves, we'll be more able to do that."

For a while, Peterson was the museum's curator of collections, and points to two prized acquisitions--the Beckers of Springerville provided family papers and furniture, and the Buehman photographs contained almost 350,000 historic pictures of Tucson and Southern Arizona. "Really good stuff," Peterson gushes.

Peterson is proud of several exhibits he worked on, including a major display on charros, or gentlemen horsemen. "We went to some far-flung places to borrow things for the exhibits," Peterson recalls, "such as Mexico City."

While he will be spending more time with his family in retirement, Peterson is also looking forward to working on his several old cars, including a '26 Packard he purchased as a 15-year-old. But he remains interested in the society's planning process for a new building.

"The new museum," Peterson says, "will be right in the heart of downtown, but a visitor should have the feeling of relating to the early settlers. Rio Nuevo is a very opportune place to interpret history and see farm fields, adobe buildings and windmills."

That is one reason both Ponder and Peterson are enthusiastic about the society's future facility being closer to one housing the Arizona State Museum. Presently situated on the UA campus, the southwest's oldest and largest anthropology museum is also working to move to Rio Nuevo.

The state museum, according to its associate director Beth Grindell, will be submitting an application next month for Rio Nuevo review. Working with UA planning staff and the city of Tucson, they have developed their basic needs for a new building. Grindell says it should be 79,000 square feet in size and will be paid for by state and federal government assistance, along with private donations and Rio Nuevo funds.

"By sharing a site with the state museum," Peterson says, "we'll be able to tie the subject matter together. It will flow in a progression from the earliest settlements to the complex ones in which we live now."

"There are opportunities for collaboration," Ponder adds. "Things such as classrooms, programming, utilities and auditoriums offer real opportunities to enhance both programs while also leading to cost savings."

"We've felt badly constrained by funding and resources," Peterson says. "We have so much to show and give to the people of Arizona. The big hope is we can do (a better) job of telling the people of the state their history."

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