Category Archives: Imperial Valley Desert Museum

Hiking Pilot Program

The IVDM is recognized for its advocation of hiking. What we are known as is the “museum that  does the hiking”, and ironically enough, we don’t actually lead hikes, just provide a resource from our website that points people in the right direction.

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Except I do a lot of hiking.

This summer seemed long. I’d gotten used to being in the desert every week and the 120 degree days and our Museum assessments didn’t agree with that schedule. As soon as the weather turned I was testing my new hiking boots, arranged a CPR/First Aid training day, and planning once a week hikes on our days off.

It’s been great.


Valley of the Moon, Jacumba Mtns.


Bow Willow to Rock House Canyon, Anza Borrego State Park


History on the Go!, Algodones Dunes


Article Review: The Art and Science of Engagement

AAM-Magnetic-Cover-FINALAn excerpt of The Art and Science of Engagement in the September/October 2013 issue of AAM’s Museum is a crystal clear explanation of the habits of “magnetic museums”. The authors define magnetic museums as “those that have developed an energized core centered on people, vision, and service, which enables them to attract and retain critical resources, such as talented and committed employees, loyal audiences, engaged donors, powerful goodwill from the community at large, and the financial capital required to sustain programmatic excellence and growth.” The themes the authors outline will be familiar to professionals who work on board and/or staff development, or community engagement.

The authors share examples of successful organizations that:

1)   Have a shared vision of staff and board

2)   Empower others through “people first, service first” philosophy

3)   Build community partnerships to “widen the circle of engagement”

4)   Become essential. (I love this one. I often tell a story of how in Imperial County, our new museum is a non-profit in a region where the Food Bank partners with schools to provide a lunch room that accepts food stamps. It brings into stark relief that a non-profit must make an impact that compares to feeding our students.)

5)   Perform with excellence (Another great one. Someone once said “the number one thing we do at this museum is engage the visitor.” Everyone we encounter has to have an experience that makes them want to come back. Every. Time.

As soon as I saw it, I immediately wanted to print a large format copy of the diagram of 360 degrees engagement and post it on the IVDM lab wall. The linked target symbol is a perfect, simple visual aid to grasp how engagement at all levels ties into the success of our organization. Judging a book by its excerpt, Bergeron and Tuttle book’s a perfect reference for museum professionals seeking to vocalize the elements that make museums relevant and essential to stakeholders.

Find more about Magnetic Museums on the book’s website:

Kumeyaay College


Tool Time with Stan, Kumeyaay College

This summer my friend and teacher Stan “politely” invited me to attend his tool making class…. 5 times. Tool Time with Stan, he calls it, “get out of the desert, catch some cool air.” I believe he was genuine in his invitation, but he was pretty insistent and I’m pretty sure a request from Stan isn’t really a request. Stan and his wife Martha are a sturdy link between the Kumeyaay crafters & speakers who are divided by the US-Mexico border. When the borderline was drawn, families were cut in half.

The president of the Museum Board and myself dutifully attended Tool Time with Stan at Kumeyaay College and learned how to wo-choo (make) a house by securing cattails to a frame with toe-nap (string). Of course all the of the hunting stick and projectile point making classes happened while I was back East on vacation, but I’ve induced a promise to do a similar program at the museum.


@ the Milkway geoglyph

One of my other very good friends, Steve, says about the trails and geoglyphs, “you have to use them or they become lost – the desert takes them back”. I ponder this often and I try to see the story from their view: Stan, who teaches cultural traditional and language to all, and Steve, who walks the old trails. A message we hear from our friends, and repeat at the museum is, “It’s not about ‘what they did back then.’ We are still here. We do these things today.” This is the most important theme that guides the planning of our first permanent exhibit. It’s a tricky line to walk to focus museum-people on the present and future. It’s new. It’s very exciting.


Steve’s geoglyph tour, Yuha Mesa


Stan @ Obsidian Butte















Basketry Workshop, Kumiai Community Museum, Tecate, Mexico

Madrecitas: Exposicion de Pequeno Formato

Screen shot 2013-09-10 at 12.57.36 PMThe Museum has hosted it’s first all-Spanish exhibit, an art exhibit from Mexicali, Mexico. This is the first ever United States exhibition, making it now an international exhibit. The organizers of the exhibit are artists themselves and drivers of the artist community. They started this small format exhibit to provide an opportunity for their students to gain exhibit experience. Now, five years later, the blossoming students of CETYS Universidad are joined by artists ranging from Southern California to Mexico City and as far as Spain.

Based in a hallway of CETYS Universidad, the inaugural exhibit had 60 pieces. In 2013 the exhibit boasts 300 pieces (which I hung with an student curator – took 3 days) from artists ranging from Southern California to Mexico City and includes 2D, 3D and video format. The exhibit represents the vibrant artistic community just across the border.

This is one of the best events we have done at the museum. It engaged a new audience, had an amazing energy level, and epitomized the type of dialogue I want to encourage at this museum. I’m very proud of this one.


Adapting a Traveling Exhibit

At the Imperial Valley Desert Museum, we promise something new at every event. This promise has kept us hopping. The most visible change we’ve made is the installation of a temporary exhibit from Exhibit Envoy.

Exhibit Envoy is a California based non-profit organization that develops traveling exhibits available to museums for a nominal fee.  They provide the research, text panels, hands-on materials, and educational curriculum. For small museums like the IVDM having all these materials arrive in three neat little boxes is worth a couple thousand dollars. Our job was half done… but only half.

The broad challenge of this project was to take the stories in Gold Fever! and make them relevant to our desert community. Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the California Gold Rush focuses on northern California where the Gold Rush was at its peak. It was also developed in 1998 by the California Council for the Humanities in collaboration with the Oakland Museum of California. Now fifteen years later, visitor expectations lean towards the dynamic, particularly the IVDM’s audience of energetic desert adventurers. As we unpacked the materials we recognized an opportunity to enhance the standard exhibit. In the end, we added 43 supplementary panels, a miner’s cabin complete with early Imperial Valley newspaper wallpaper, and developed two interactive scale exhibits: at one you can calculate the price of a pound of coffee in 1850, at the other you can calculate your weight in gold.




The most important aspect of this project is that it focused a Californian story to an Imperial County story. Sometimes we are forgotten in this outskirt community, but that only means that this is a place where people can discover. The adapted Gold Fever! exhibit reveals secrets of the desert that you visit and in which we live. Supplementing the exhibit with local information supports our preservation strategy by encouraging pride of place to promote preservation of our landscape and cultural resources. The more people that learn about Imperial County the more conscious they become of our unique environment and the mysteries it holds.

We added to the exhibit in four key ways:

1)   highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

2)   using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

3)   incorporating local stories and players

4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites


1)   Highlighting facts and quotes in the provided text

The text developed by the Oakland Museum is incredibly interesting and the panels contain a wealth of research, but when we unpacked the 24 panels and lined them up, I was conscious of only one thing: a wall of text. Without a visual break in the information you have a foreboding that reading about the Gold Rush is going to take a lot of energy and focus. As a curator, it is my job to learn the history we interpret, but visitors don’t want to work. They are on vacation, or just trying to get the kids out of the house, or having a leisure day. We needed to facilitate the learning experience and help them pinpoint the most interesting bits. As the staff read through the text, we highlighted our favorite facts. The best one was that the first millionaire in CA wasn’t a miner, he was the guy selling the shovels. We used the flagged information as inspiration to develop meaningful stories for our audience.


2)  Using existing online resources to supplement the exhibit

One of the panels reference William Swain’s surviving journal. A little online research turned up a digitization project by Yale’s Beinecke Library making Swain’s journal accessible. An old desk and a printer allows visitor’s to read Swain’s first hand accounts in detail.


We are trying to make this relevant to Imperial County, so why stop with an out of town-er like Swain? The US census shows miners in Imperial County from 1850 through 1900 and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project has Imperial County newspapers back to 1901. Cited appropriately, these make for some really easy, useful resources.


3)   incorporating local stories and players

Inspired by Swain’s journal, we sought loans from the local Bureau of Land Management office. The additional artifacts and photographs create a fuller picture of mining in Imperial County. Coupled with the census material, we could now compare Swain’s experience with early pioneer life in Imperial County.


4)   incorporating present day interaction with historic sites

This leads us directly to incorporating present day life. Our 1930’s historic collection includes images of visitors having a picnic at the American Girl Mine, our field books describe archeology work at Picaho Mine, and two weeks before the opening of the exhibit I was hiking at Elliot Mine. The Valley’s residents and visitors have always moved in and around this history. Exhibit Envoy and the Oakland Museum sent us the facts of the Gold Rush and with a little time and effort and a large format printer, we used that baseline to develop an exhibit relevant to our local history, our mission, and our modern visitor.



Taking the time to adapt the exhibit had far reaching implications. Strategically, it was a fund raising tool that met our mission, met the expectations of our visitors, and furthered our strategic plan. It was also a community resource. One of the first comments a student made to me about the museum was “when is it opening? I’ve never been to a museum.” Now we have an exhibit in which our community is a main player. Imperial County may be geographically isolated, but these days that is a boundary easily transcended. Supplementing the exhibit turned a statewide story into a local story and it has the potential to show our community their role in a broader world and spark the idea that they have a place in it.


Last night I attended a discussion on the yonis that dot our desert. Yonis are naturally occurring rock formations recognized as fertility symbols – gives new meaning to the term “mother earth”. When you see one, you’ll know. What I didn’t know is that there is some controversy over whether or not they are traditionally significant, despite their current celebrity.

“How can archaeologist imbue cultural significance on a symbol when there is no oral history to back it up?” asked the archaeologist. A fantastic point. No matter how long you stare at the crevices and chips and flakes of a rock, it is not going to share its secrets – or lack their of. We are dealing with 10,000 years of history and just as many years of erosion. And anyway, it’s women’s business. You don’t need to know.

Women’s business. I’ve thought a lot about women’s business and men’s business over the last few years. The sanctity of women’s business. The difference between a girl and a woman, the high regard for a mother.  Do you discuss these things with your sons? Would you ever tell a stranger? Do you explain these things, or are they just present?

The lecturer told this story: A local tribe charged the last heir with carrying on the family knowledge. They taught him everything and he in turn taught it to his children. His daughter is attributed to have said that if yonis were culturally significant, he would have told her. But, the group wondered, would the aunties have shared women’s business with the young man during his teaching? No one in the room was qualified to answer. The lecturer also told of a woman in the southern tribes in Mexico who described a fertility ceremony involving yonis, but she had never seen it done. No one else would talk to the lecturer regarding these matters. Research stalled. It would take longer than the lecturer had to give to even have a prayer of opening up the conversation.

2012 IVDM Summary

In 2012 I helped open a museum. It didn’t quite hit me until I drafted the annual report. I was most surprised by how it didn’t seem to end. It is 16 pages. And that isn’t even the behind-the-scenes development stuff, just the day to day activities and operations at the museum. 16 pages.  It’s overwhelming how much we did, because this year we are going to triple it.

The 2012 report in the process of getting approved by the board, but here is the draft table of contents:

1.       Introduction

2.       Opening the Museum & Visitation
2.1       Opening the Museum & Attendance
2.2       Online Media and Visitation

3.       Curation Laboratory Development

4.       Inventory Project
4.1       Summary
4.2       Temperature and Relative Humidity Controls

5.        Archives Project

6.       Partnerships
6.1       Colorado Desert Archaeological Society (CDAS)
6.2       Imperial Free County Library
6.3       SDG&E
6.3.1    Native American Intern Program

7.       Summer Youth Program

8.       Events & Exhibits
8.1       Star Gazing in the Desert
8.2       Exhibit Research for Museum Month
8.3       Volunteer Curation
8.4       3,000 Artifacts in a Day
8.5       Sundance Institute’s Film Forward Program
8.6       Art Workshops – Watercolor & Photography
8.7       Exhibit Openings
8.8       Informal Hiking

9.       Grants
9.1       Ceramic Art Program – Exploring our Desert Culture Grant
9.2       Sidney Stern Memorial Trust
9.3       DOVES Youth Healthy Living
9.4       Grants In Process
9.4.1    Achieving Sustainability in the Desert Environment
9.4.2    Reuniting Archives and Artifacts
9.4.3    Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums
9.4.4    Collections Stewardship Assessment, MAP
9.4.5    Conservation Assessment Program

10.       Gift Shop

Invent it. Build it.

So busy I barely had time to snap this photo next to the SciGirls table.

Vannevar Bush reminded us in As We May Think that by working together we overcame the greatest challenges. Collaboration is key and working across fields is how it is accomplished.

I attended the Society of Women Engineers 2012 conference last week. We are beginning to develop our youth programming at the museum and anyone who knows SWE knows that K-12 programming is a high priority. My goal was to interact with as many K-12 resources as possible and interact with the executive leadership. The current members of the Over the Hill Suite have overseen the organization as it developed from an organization that hosted a conference of 2,000 to a conference of 6,400: over doubled in size in 10 years. You have to be able to pick up a few tips from these ladies – accomplished in their own careers and leading this diversity driven organization in their spare time.

This year, I helped organize the vendor expo for the Invent it. Build it. event, an all day hands-on activity event for middle school girls and their parents and educators. The event is held at the location of the conference every year. The vendor expo is the portion of the day that exposes the girls to local engineering based organizations. For instance, FIRST, an annual robot building challenge, brought last year’s creations and challenged the girls to drive a robot, NAVSEA brought mini-submarines and had the girls test the amount of weights it took to counter buoyancy  Instead of having set activities like the rest of the day, at the vendor expo the girls can choose which projects to work. It effectively appealed to their sense of independence. Here’s the local press:

My favorite vendor was SciGirls from PBS. If I can get a local engineer to volunteer to run a project, I’m going to have them film a session at the museum. The representative I talked to listened to the story of the museum with rapt attention. At least we know we’ve caught their ear.

Pilot Program: Sunset Photography 101

The series of members-only events we’ve been holding at the museum have been very effective in developing programs. And I can’t help but adding – really, really fun. The intimate nature of the events attracts those truly interested experiencing something new, and for those people we will pilot any program they wish.

This week we are interested in celebrating the desert through photography. I’ve always wanted to test out that mysterious P setting on my own little point-and-click. The volunteer who led our elite group through the camera basics implied something I’d never thought of: once you know how the “cloudy” setting manupulates the camera, you can use it anyway you want.

The last couple of days have been an extended trial-and-error session since Saturday’s photography event. I have two goals: capturing colors and telling a story in one shot.







AASLH 2012 Small Museums Scholarship

Before I headed to the conference I saw a comment on the AASLH list serv. Someone asked about admission fees and a responder mentioned that a she had to do a 36$ tour for 6 people on her day off and it wasn’t worth her time. Then make it worth your while, I thought. Develop a 50 dollar tour instead of a $6 tour.

At the conference, I learned that we at the IVDM are living in the new paradigm of museum. Institutions that just do it. Just do the event. Just host the art. Just have a sense of humor. Just ask for money. Just let people help. Just be fun. If the risk assessment is small, what is there to be afraid of?