Category Archives: Imperial Valley Desert Museum

100 year plan

I got this email today:

Hey there! Neal’s cooking food and a clay pot in the fire pit and I’m remembering when you first started building it with a pick axe. Thinking of you, hope things are going great. Everyone here still asks how you’re doing-Betty says hi!

It’s important to me that I have built something people use. It was a team effort to get it finished, but it’s a great feeling to be remembered as a part of the beginning.

Sustainable use of fire pit: firing ceramic art while making dinner .

Exhibit Development


Design, review, iteration, iteration, iteration

In Feb 2013, the IVDM approved a final design for the new 8,000 sqft permanent exhibit. It is now in fabrication.

All the narratives, images, objects, concepts & interactives – so carefully deliberated – are becoming real.


From collecting content to interactive software


From mockup to final panel

The Most Important Collection

IMG_6788Geoglyphs, or ancient earthen art, are rare expressions of human interaction with the landscape. One of the most recognized examples are the Nasca Lines of Peru. Imperial County is home to the largest collection of documented humaniod geoglyphs in the world. The oldest dated geoglyph is estimated at 6,000 years old.

The head of Imperial Valley College’s Archeology Department, Jay von Werlhof, lead a team of local researchers in documenting these internationally significant sites for over 30 years.

Harry Casey was a key member of the team, lending his private plane, piloting experience, and photography skills … often at the same time (taking photos through a custom cut hole in the floor of the plane).

The Imperial County Geoglyphs are still a mystery to the research community, and until recently, there was no accessible research on the subject.

IMG_6985In 2014, the IVDM began receiving Harry Casey’s full body of research – over 3,000 images of geoglyphs and rock art sites from the region and around comparative collections from across the world. From June – Decemeber, myself and the IVDM archivist conducted oral interviews and took detailed notes to build an accessible reference guide to the collection and creating context. As Mr. Casey pointed out what he considered to be the most important aspects, I created notated images to reference what he discussed. Meant to be viewed along with the audio interview, Harry Casey’s “lessons” are now a permanent part of the IVDM collections.


The Hitch’s Book Club

BernadetteTo: Simon, Katie, Mom, Sarah, Barb, and Patricia
From: Jessica
Subject: Hi from the desert

I have just finished reading a book for Book Club and, there being no one else around, I thought I’d write and tell you my thoughts. (You have just joined Book Club.) There are only two standing members of Book Club: me and Lucas Hitch, my boss’ middle son. Here’s how it goes:
1) Lucas reads an interesting book from an obscure publisher.
2) I hound him about what book I should read next until he finally relents and gives me a title. Usually one where the main character is a 25 – 40 something opinionated feminist searching for the meaning of life. He thinks I’ll relate. He’s usually disappointingly right, but those are not my favorite stories, I’ll have you know.

Sometimes Book Club has a guest reader. Usually it’s Lucas’ dad, Neal, who gets tired of not knowing what we are talking about in the car. Lucas works at the Museum over the summer and we ride back and forth from town to Ocotillo and back, a captive audience for Neal’s terribly interesting and knowledgable lectures. That is only a little bit sarcastic. I tell people I’ve been in a PhD program for 5 years now, by virtue of listening to Neal, and I think my latest work, of which I’m very proud, shows the profit.

I digress. Once in a while, in the car, I manage to bring up my analysis of the book I just finished reading and tell Neal now he’s three books behind for Book Club. Even though Neal doesn’t have time to read because he’s too busy try to keep both a Museum and his family afloat on this non-profit crazy train, he enjoys the pay-off to Book Club, which is intellectual discussions. Other guest readers could be a Museum intern, someone we hike with all the time and again gets tired of not knowing what we are talking about, or sometimes my mom, if I think she’ll like the last book we read. This is one of them. The book I just finished reading is written almost entirely in emails, texts, and documents relating to a slightly off-kilter genius artist, her daughter, husband and what happens to an artist when they stop creating (mayhem). I highly recommend it. It’s called Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Back Bay Books, reprint 2013). I spent the morning polishing off the last 50% of the book (it’s a percentage only because I can’t figure out how to get the Kindle to show page numbers. When did technology get away from me? I’ve given up on TV remotes entirely. I just ask someone else to change the channel, skip the commercials, change to the AV source, whatever. If I try myself it usually ends in me disconnecting the satellite, which means a twenty minute re-boot that was all my fault while everyone waits to see that show we all sat down specifically to watch. Embarrassing.)

Last night was my first night back in Ocotillo alone after spending three weeks almost entirely with the Hitches, and, no reflection on the Hitches, I had a leisurely morning in bed, enjoying the quiet, and finishing Where’d you go Bernadette? When the book ended, it was time for coffee.

The first thing I did, which is what you do in a trailer in a desert that has been unoccupied for a while, was check to see if the ants that I had battled last night (first with lemon juice and dish soap, and then finally, heartlessly – not in my BED! – with flying insect spray I found in a closet at the Museum) had moved on to taking over the kitchen while I slept. Getting up and checking for bug outbreaks as the first thing on your morning “to do” list made me think, not for the first time, that I could write a book about this. It would probably be a lot like Bernadette’s story: privately languishing in self pity, looking for redemption in the wrong places, and finally, just living off the adventure. I bet we have all done that – all of us involved in the Hitch’s 10 year adventure – we all think we could write a book about this. Where’d you go Bernadette? made me want to tell my story about the crazy little places you can go in the world. They all have their own quirks, but they are essentially all the same. More than write it, I just wish I could share that experience with you. Today I miss you all very much. This adventure is so much more fun when there is company.

On the other hand, there are hazards to having company on a non-profit adventure – you own nothing and share everything. Today, I woke up relaxed in my trailer, finally alone in my desert oasis, and walked over to the other trailer to make coffee because that’s where the Hitches left the only coffee pot. The bottom of my feet burned on the way. Oh right. It’s summer. In the desert. Duh. I put the coffee on and nimbly ran back to my trailer for milk and flip flops, and picked up my computer so I could write and tell you about this crazy place I am living. Did you know that you cannot wear jewelry here in summer? It will burn you. The ambient temperature is so hot it heats up earring hooks, necklace chains, and watch backs to a very, very uncomfortable temperature, causing you to rip them off as quickly as possible in shock, alarm, and finally, with the realization that you should have known better. When I first arrived here someone described the summer heat as pointing a hair blow-drier in your mouth while you hold a hot iron up to your face. Imperial County is the hottest place to live in the US, second only to Death Valley. We should make “I survived” t-shirts for the Museum.

Anyway, so I went to get milk and flip flops. I looked for the sugar, but in its place is a giant container of salt. In my absence, Anne has made the trailer her own. This is the problem with sharing an adventure. Every thinks they own something here, and really we all own nothing. The Hitches, I think, are disappointed that I’m going to stay in their trailer (giving up the place I think of as home here: my imitation NYC loft that makes the whole trailer mine by virtue of I sleep in the common area), but neither Anne nor I, I’m sure, wish to live together again. Not because there is animosity, but because you own nothing and share everything and can’t I just get a second to myself once in a while! It eats you up slowly. Trust me, it’ll be better for our work productivity if we don’t live together.

This trip to a crazy place is different from all the rest – it’s a return. We are all experienced desert adventurers now. There is no new intern to show around town. No one that needs entertaining. We all know where everything is (bank, casino, hot springs, hiking) and where to get it. Now we just have to orchestrate getting what we want with one vehicle and seven different ideas of how to do it. Thank heavens there is a hierarchy or we’d never make it. Rule #1: Deneen (matriarch) gets what she wants. Neal (Museum Director) provides us with jobs, direction, and housing so he’s #2 on the list. It gets fuzzy after that. Your place in line can change based on the project we are working on, whether it’s your birthday, are Deneen’s child, or have just returned from vacation. And, if you have gone somewhere nice for vacation you are lower on the list than everyone because you did something fun without us. And worse, experienced luxuries that just don’t exist here. Like shop at an H&M (where the boys are getting suits for the Hitch’s oldest son’s wedding and, which has resulted in no less than 3 trips to San Diego to accomplish that feat). Imperial County is actually a step up from the Turks and Caicos where eating beef off island without bringing some back with you could get you cold-shouldered for days. Until we all went swimming. When you come out of those waters everything is a crystal clear clean slate. (I don’t think slate can actually be clear, but that doesn’t make a very good story, now does it?)

In these crazy little places we adventurers come and go so frequently that we hardly matter, but we don’t realize it. We become so involved in our projects and our lives that we share with just a few people that we think we become a part of the place. We don’t. You don’t. You do not make a mark on the place. The place makes it’s mark on you. Your job is to carry the lessons forward.

All of my latest adventures are to the Hitches credit. Their family is born out of a communal lifestyle I never quite understand, but enjoy living in. You own nothing, but share everything. It’s a lifestyle that reaches through the people it touches to touch other people. It’s part of a 100-year plan. And it’s working. Now I tell the Hitches that my life is a giant inside-joke-with-no-one about their lives. The life they share with me. No one knows the jokes outside of our museum-living circle, but I tell them anyway. I travel around so much it’s a way of bringing the familiar with me. The stories make me laugh and make me feel closer to my friends, even if I get funny looks: “I’m just trying to give directions, why are you talking about a telephone booth?” On Grand Turk a telephone booth was damaged and removed, but locals still give directions by where the telephone booth used to be. If you don’t know where it was, you are sh*t out of luck.

What’s funny is that the stories are spreading. Just before I left New England somebody else told one of Neal’s jokes. I was taken aback – how did she know? – but I guess that’s how often I talk about my past lives: they are becoming other people’s stories. I think that people think I’m trying to live in the past, but really I’m trying to bring the past into my present. The lesson I carry forward is that life can be fun if you manufacture opportunities to make it so. Telling stories of a time when all we did everyday was turn massive amounts of hard work into massive amounts of really fun work reminds me that I can make life what I want it to be; all the power rests in my hands. Powerful stuff, no? Worth remembering.

As always in Book Club, that’s not very much information about the book, but lots about what the book brings to mind. Want more? You can read a review here: or an interview with the author here:


P.S. Some of you may see this duplicated in a blog post.

Outreach Activities for Collections Care Webinar

Outreach-150x150Today was the last day of the Californians Connecting to Collections Webinar on Outreach Activities for Collections Care, an initiative of Heritage Preservation, funded through an IMLS grant. Our team participated on a C2C on-site webinar on Grant Writing in 2011 and the growth of the program was palatable. This was a totally different experience for many different reasons.

Undoubtedly the best part of the webinar was the expert lecturers: professionals in fields that I wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to interact with. As an employee of a small museum what are the chances of me running into a museum professional who deals exclusively with media attention? A social media expert who deals exclusively social media? Slim to none: my boss would have to let me out of the museum far more than he is comfortable with. But I still perform all these functions at my institution. The C2C offered a real chance a professional growth. I can’t say enough about it.

Course details a:

Book Review: The Non-Profit Strategy Revolution


The Non-Profit Strategy Revolution by David La Piana essentially boils down to the title of the last chapter “Real Time Strategy in a rapid response world”. La Piana asserts that the problem with strategic plans is that they rarely engage people in the process of strategy, and as a result, strategy fails to become action.

This is a book with a purpose. The author suggests developing an in depth understanding of mission and an environment focused on continuous evaluation. By empowering board and staff to evaluate the cause and effect of their actions against the goals of the strategic plan, the strategic planning document ceases to be the end goal and becomes a living component of the organization.

…and I really like one of the quotes: “leaders don’t make followers, they make more leaders.”

Find more information at

Cultural Heritage Symposium

My friends from CDAS made me an honorary member of the Society and arranged for me to attend this weekend’s symposium in Borrego Springs.


All the local experts are represented and its hard to believe that after two years of networking I’m leaving some very good friends and passionate supporters of native landscapes and voice.

The Answer is Always Yes

Don’t spend too much time questioning an action. If it fits the mission: do it. And have fun while your at it.  You never know what will work, what won’t, and what will take you to a whole new level. The creators of the Youtube sensation What Does the Fox Say, in attempting to make the worst video ever, have been sky-rocketed to international stardom.

The Norwegian comedians have infused a sense of play into million of lives with one 3 minute video. And it spread.


2013’s most popular middle school teacher ever, Imperial County, CA.

Last Good Hike

Today was one of my last hiking days and it was a good one. A friend decided to show off a Jacumba resident’s straw bale hauls – one of my favorite towns up the grade to the west of Imperial County. Staying at the haus over the weekend was a couple who run a farm on a Pima Arizona reservation. They showed us around the property – completely off the grid and 5 structures that serve as the main house, generator room, guest house, outhouse, and amphitheater and then explained their own new product. They are bring the ancient beans (bahf) used by the Huhukam back to the American diet. I’m trying the delicious sounding wheat berry salad for dinner tonight.


Ramona Farms has been working with Wholefoods since March on a plan to go regional. Very exciting for them and a timely conversation since the museum is doing an exhibit on Native American Foodways in May 2014.

Then we were off to Meyers Valley for a fantastically leisurely hike over the impressive boulders of the Jacumba wilderness. Don’t you just love the thrill of hanging from two fingers and reaching for the next hold. Riveting.


This, of course, all on the back of a weekend spent getting acquainted with the Laguna Moutains in Cleveland National Forest, which seems to me one of the few places in the world you can look down from an alpine forest onto a desert that I sometimes call home.



Above: A meadow valley by the currently dry Big Laguna Lake, tons of ceramic scatter by the edges… wouldn’t you want that view as you prepared tonight’s meal? Incredible. And home of my very good friends, the Lucas’, the last members of the Kwaaymii band of Kumeyaay. After the last two years of talking about Tom Lucas’ contribution to preserving the family culture, it felt like a little bit of a pilgrimage to actually see what we’ve been discussing.

Recognized Professionalization


This year I coordinated the Core Documents Program at the IVDM, which involved revising the Museum’s Collections Management Plan, Emergency Management Plan, Ethics Policy, and Institutional Plan to meet the standards set by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). These documents passed the Core Document Review earlier this month, which is the first step of Accreditation through AAM. As part of the program, I coordinated two museum assessments that evaluated the Museum’s operation, documentation, and collections stewardship. The Museum Assessment Program, a program of AAM, and the Conservation Assessment Program, a program of Heritage Preservation, are two national standards programs funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services that provide review by a specialist knowledgeable in best practice and national museum standards.

The MAP helps small and mid-sized museums strengthen operations, plan for the future and meet national standards through self-study and a site visit from a peer reviewer. The MAP hails itself as a “self-motivated program” and I took full advantage. The first six months of this year were devoted to evaluating and re-evaluating our core documents (as defined by AAM’s Core Docu

An aspect of the MAP program is to provide your reviewer with a copy of documents, should your institution have them. As a new institution, this was a good opportunity to broaden our paper trail. I documented many of the policies and procedures we already follow in 10 new documents that guide everything from lab procedures to human resources. They are intended to provide tools with which the Museum can relay our goals and values to the community.ments Verification Program). This was rewarded with extremely supportive comments by our peer reviewer, who said our Collections Management Policy was a “model, excellent policy” and our Emergency Plan was the most thorough he’d ever seen.

The MAP final report recognizes “The Museum is in the midst of professionalizing. It has many strengths, including a very knowledgeable, dedicated, energetic, professional staff …”

During the CAP, we evaluated our conservation procedures with the assistance of Dr. Nancy Odegaard, Arizona State Museum’s Lead Conservator and Head of the Preservation Department – a leader in the field. My specialty is in archives and so the discussions with Nancy were invaluable for moving the archaeology conservation lab toward the highest regional standard.

Today the staff tested one of the recommendations Dr. Odegaard made during her visit in September, I described how we accession items into the museum – using B-72 reversible adhesive and writing numbers to identify the objects – pretty standard procedure. Nancy suggested we type the numbers rather than write them – eliminating the age old museum problem of deciphering handwriting and reading tiny little numbers. A simple but elegant solution. The CAP final report is expected by March 2014.