Resurrect the Arizona Museum

Does Phoenix really hate history?  Of the top dozen US Cities, Phoenix is the only one without its own historical museum. It’s time to do something about it

By Bob Graham, Motley Design Group

I’m concerned that Phoenix is in danger of losing its sense of history.
Here are the largest cities in the US in order of population: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Jacksonville, and San Francisco.

What makes Phoenix stand out in this list? It’s the only one that does not have an institution dedicated to its own history. In fact, of the top 25 cities, it appears that only Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Nashville don’t have their own city historical museums – and Indy and Nashville host their state historical museums. (In Arizona, that honor goes to Tucson, with the local branch being in Tempe.) Wait, you say – what about the Phoenix Museum of History? We passed a bond for that back in ’88 and built them a multi-million-dollar building – at the Heritage and Science Park.

Unfortunately, the Arizona Museum, the group that ran the Phoenix Museum of History, was dissolved in 2011. The organization found itself unable to make ends meet after the City of Phoenix halted annual support payments. Their collections of records and artifacts became the property of the neighboring Arizona Science Center, with the understanding that they would keep a certain amount of historical exhibit space in operation, and allowing them to take over the historical museum’s facilities to expand their own mission. However only a portion of the collections were retained, with the remainder cast to the four winds.

Phoenix History Museum
The former home of the Phoenix History Museum lies literally in the shadow of the Arizona Science Center.

The takeover was controversial. Talking with some of the principals, there was definitely some bad blood created by the way it happened. Certainly, the museum’s Board was ultimately responsible, but it seems to me that the City set them up for failure by promising $50,000 per year in support and then pulling the rug out from under them at the worst possible time. And the Science Center’s actions appear to be nothing short of predatory.

The Arizona Museum was itself a piece of Phoenix history. Started in 1923 by members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the museum was born when there were still pioneers around who lived through the creation of the capital of the State of Arizona, from its canals-and-mud-huts roots through the time it started looking and acting like a real city. In 1927, using true old-fashioned small-town, grassroots fundraising, they built an adobe museum building designed by noted local architects Fitzhugh & Byron on a site in University Park leased from the City of Phoenix. The

AZ Museum post Card
The Arizona Museum, depicted in a 1940s postcard

building still stands on the corner of Van Buren Street and 10th Avenue, essentially unaltered except for a coat of stucco added in the 1930s. And there the museum existed, in slow decline, until they moved away in 1996 to occupy the slick, modern building across from the Rosson House. (Thanks to Donna Reiner for her nice article “How Community Built the Arizona Museum,” in the Arizona Republic.)

Of course, there are a number of other historical museums in Phoenix. However, specialty museums such as the Hall of Flame or the Police Museum, and prehistoric museums such as Pueblo Grande, don’t do justice with the story of Phoenix itself, only small segments of that history.

It is an absolute embarrassment that the sixth largest city in the United States can’t marshal enough interest in its history to support an historical museum to remember and celebrate its roots. It is equally embarrassing that our city government not only failed to help save the history museum but in fact contributed to its demise.

So it’s time for all of us historical wonks to get together and form the kind of coalition that it will take to resurrect the Arizona Museum. And it’s time for the City of Phoenix to help fix the mess that they caused during the recession. And it needs to be done before there is any further loss of our historical patrimony.

If it were up to me, I’d recreate the institution in the place it first started – at its historical home in University Park. When the museum moved out, the neighborhood was at rock bottom and the museum was starved of visitors due to the perception of blight that pervaded west Van Buren. Today, the area is once again in ascendance, due to the efforts of the Capitol Mall Association, GAMA, and the recent re-colonization of the surrounding historic neighborhoods by young hipsters. The building stands waiting for the return of its original purpose. Perhaps it would make sense to partner a resurrected Phoenix History Museum with the Phoenix Trolley Museum – who will be losing their home soon due to the redevelopment of Hance Park; it seems like a natural enough partnership, and there is strength in numbers.

The Arizona Museum
The once and future home of the Arizona Museum / Phoenix History Museum?

This may be one of those situations where need meets opportunity. We need an institution whose purpose it is to safeguard the records and artifacts of Phoenix’s history, and to educate the public and the coming generations about how we came to live in the desert. Those lessons are relevent as we reexamine the sustainability of our lifestyles and re-engineer Phoenix’s urban form. The opportunity is created by an improving economy, rising public interest in history and the growth of the number of constituents choosing to live in our historic core. There is a potential home that is tied to Phoenix history, not a glass and steel piece of moderrn architecture; and there are partnerships that can be created that could strengthen the revitalization of our west-side neighborhoods and other struggling institutions. Let’s take advantage of this convergence and reestablish the Arizona Museum at University Park.

View a print-friendly version of this article here.