The Arizona State Museum celebrated its 120th anniversary last week- basking in its glory days, predicting a grand future and plodding through its current crises.

In June, the museum will install its seventh director, Patrick Lyons, who inherits a venerable institution that faces significant challenges - or, as Lyons prefers, "opportunities."

Lyons, associate director since 2009, would like to renovate the interior of the stately brick museum on the west end of the UA Mall to add needed exhibit space. But the building's age, design quirks and historic status push the price tag to an estimated $60 million.

Museum staff spent five years designing a "core exhibit" for a planned science center and museum downtown. But that plan was discarded with the rest of the city of Tucson's vision for a cultural complex as part of its Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project.

Museum scientists have deep knowledge of Arizona history, but 10 to 12 of them plan to retire soon.

It's not easy, running a museum.

Opened in 1893

The museum began its life in 1893, when Territorial legislator George W.P. Hunt, who would become Arizona's first governor, penned a bill establishing the Arizona State Museum. It was funded at $100 a year.

It was run by unpaid curators who used random donations and their own collections to build up what was then envisioned as a natural history museum.

It hired its first director in 1915 when Byron Cummings left the University of Utah to a accept a part-time position as a professor of classics and "director of a mothballed museum," said former director Raymond H. Thompson in a speech Thursday at the museum's birthday celebration. "Cummings made anthropology the first focus of the museum," said Thompson.

Cummings, a Classics professor who also taught the university's Latin and Greek classes, established an anthropology department and training in archaeology.

One of his first master's graduates in archaeology was Emil Haury, who came to the UA in a golden era of Southwest archaeology, and became "one of the pre-eminent archaeologists of the 20th century," said Thompson.

Haury uncovered and interpreted mammoth kill sites of the earliest inhabitants of North America. He excavated the massive waterworks of the region's early desert farmers - the Hohokam. He also worked with UA astronomer A.E. Douglass to create the new scientific field of dendrochronology, or tree-ring studies.

He opened the first actual museum, a Roy Place-designed brick building with a grand high-ceilinged exhibition hall across the Mall from the current museum.

But things were not all rosy in Haury's time.

He presided over the anthropology department and museum during a Depression that sapped funding and inhibited enrollment.

Things were on the mend when Thompson took over in 1965 and he presided over a major expansion of the department and the museum as baby boomers reached college age and Arizona added residents at a frantic pace. In 1977, the museum moved to the former Main Library.

Thompson stepped down as head of anthropology in 1980, separating the two jobs for the first time since Cummings created them. He continued as director of the museum until 1998.

Shelves hold up floors

The current museum, also designed by noted Tucson architect Place, was built in 1925 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Its arched windows, two-stories high, fill a second-story, formal reading room with natural light. It was built at a time when librarians fetched books for customers from interior stacks.

Place designed those metal shelving units to be the load-bearing structure of the building's interior. On five floors, metal columns spaced four-feet apart, support the floor above.

That structural puzzle and the building's historical status make remodeling it an expensive proposition, but it is something that needs doing, said Lyons.

The book shelves, five floors of them, are filled with cardboard boxes containing paper bags with bits of pottery and stone tools gathered from digs throughout the state.

The museum is, by law, the repository for all archaeological material gathered on state, federal and municipal land in Arizona, and it must curate that material "in perpetuity."

State and federal laws requiring construction sites to be surveyed before building produced a flood of material in the latter part of the 20th Century, leading to a bigger curation burden for the museum and a reduced role in archaeology itself.

At one point, the museum rented warehouse space downtown to shelve its treasures, but had to give that up during the recent construction slowdown. Fewer projects meant less income for the museum, which charges firms for storing and curating.

Most of the significant archaeology conducted today is done by cultural resource experts hired or contrated by governments .

"Southern Arizona continues to be on the cutting edge of American archaeology, but it often isn't the museum and university architects who are in the lead. These days, it is frequently the private sector cultural-resource-management archaeologists who are making the most significant discoveries and accumulating the majority of the new information about the past," said archaeologist Jonathan Mabry, the city of Tucson's historic preservation officer.

The state museum's role has shifted, said Mabry, but it remains crucial.

Curation, while a burden, is a necessary one, he said. The items must be "stored forever for future researchers to look at with fresh eyes and new techniques and technologies."

The museum is also a needed check on the work being done, Mabry said.

"They ensure that the archaeology done is to a high standard. They are not just the keepers of stuff; they are the gatekeepers of quality in archaeology in Arizona."

More space needed

Lyons, who received his early training at a cultural-resource firm, values the work of the private firms, and relies on the fees the museum charges to them, but he wrote in a 2010 report that those arrangements are both "a blessing and a curse."

Fees charged for storage support the salaries of museum staff who process them, but the boxes add to the ever-growing space crunch and cost of curation.

"It is impossible to charge up-front, one-time, for storing things in perpetuity," he said.

So while the recent construction downturn was a reprieve, it also was a burden. And it came at the same time the state was cutting university funds, reducing its share of the museum's operating budget by a third - $800,000, said director Beth Grindell.

The museum hiked its rates for curation and increased its private donations, in addition to cutting staff to meet that challenge.

Plans for building a repository were shelved, along with plans to provide new exhibit space at a science center planned for the city of Tucson's Rio Nuevo property.

The implosion of the city's Rio Nuevo project meant "five years of work down the tubes," said Grindell.

Museum curators continue to work on turning some of those plans into a new core exhibit to replace the museum's 20-year-old "Paths of Life."

Anything added at this point requires a subtraction.

Lyons said the museum has "a third to a quarter of the space we need, given our stature and our collections."

The solution to that is renovation, which, because of the building's age, historic status and structural eccentricities, "would cost the same as a new building," said Grindell.

New techniques applied

While formally separated from what is now the School of Anthropology, the two institutions continue to work together, with joint appointments and constant collaboration, said the school's director, Barbara Mills.

Mills said the museum, despite the financial difficulties, is "in a new grand period" where an increasing array of scientific techniques are applied to its significant collections.

"They really need a state-of-the-art repository with space to work with collections," she said. "The real change in archaeology is to go back to some of these collections with real research and scientific techniques."

Lyons is optimistic that it can be accomplished and that he can rid the former museum of the high shelving that now fills the grand hall of the south building.

He cites the improving economy and a new university administration that wants to increase public outreach and student involvement in research - two things the museum does well.

"The UA administration has heard our concerns," he said. "They understand them and they want to help."

On StarNet: How deep are the roots of your knowledge of Arizona history, people and culture? Take a quiz about the Arizona State Museum and its artifacts at


The museum is on the north side of the UA Mall, just west of North Park Avenue.

It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Adult admission is $5; children and students are admitted free.

Current exhibits include "Basketry Treasured," "Paths of Life" and two photographic displays: "A World Separated by Borders" and "Ancient Architecture of the Southwest."

Source: Arizona State Museum


The Arizona State Museum is the oldest and largest anthropology museum in the Southwest. It houses:

• The world's largest collection of Southwestern pottery, with its most significant pieces stunningly displayed in a see-through "wall of pots."

• A collection of Southwest Indian basketry, totaling more than 25,000 pieces. A current exhibit, "Basketry Treasured" displays 500 of its most important pieces.

• An extensive collection of Navajo rugs and other textiles; Western Apache items; ethnographic items from northwest Mexico including pottery, basketry and textiles; more than 600 Mexican folk masks; and 400 folk costumes.

• A 90,000-volume library specializing in Southwestern anthropology.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.