Tag Archives: community relations

The Gardiner’s Moneymaker

GardinerIn the wake of researching a new exhibit, I couldn’t help but evaluate the Gardiner Museum’s latest renovations on my latest visit to the Third Thursday event.

Conclusion: “This is a money maker”.


I’ll be able to say “I knew it when”. The small tiny museum always carried itself with the importance of “old money”, but looked like the cute, sweet, little, under appreciated treasure it was. In the last few years, the Gardiner reinvented itself as a posh hotspot with stimulating community spaces, increasing its events and activities, and creating more space for artifacts and staff. This new vision has a price, however, and it will be a long time before purists will forgive the destruction of Gardiner’s (DESIGNED BY?) carriage house. (Gardiner left strict instructions that everything in the museum must remain as she left it, but she also left some legal loopholes.)

Purist or not, what’s done is done and the result is… pleasing. Inside the building it’s the old Gardiner with treasures waiting to be discovered around every corner. In the new addition it’s a destination. You can dine, shop, read a book, see theater, or do an art project.


I was hardly able to enjoy the evening; I was too busy evaluating the impact of the new changes on my visitor experience. Museums are seeking relevance. Did the Gardiner hit the mark? I’d be very interested in studying the data that made this particular design seem like the right thing to do.

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.

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.

Screen shot 2013-10-15 at 10.57.45 PM

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


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.

Film Forward sparks dialogue…again

Earlier this year the Imperial County Film Commissioner’s Office brought the Sundance Institute’sFilm Forward Program to the Valley. We were invited to participate in a continuation of that program through a Google Hangout.

Last Saturday at the 3,000 artifacts event, we screened “Somewhere Between” a film about several young woman who were adopted from China into American families and their struggle for identity. This morning, we joined participants from across the country and internationally to compare and discuss the reaction of our communities with each other and the film’s director.
I watched the film apart from our group of participants, and I have to say I’m glad I did. I almost the exact opposite reaction as this group of college-aged students raised in a border culture. I thought of my very good friend who was adopted into a white family in a white dominated area and mourned. But even my friend’s experiences were different than those in the documentary – that is to say, American families aren’t in the habit of flying to China yearly. In the film, one of the girls’ families flew 4 people over to meet her birth family – as completely unthinkable in Imperial County as it is in middle Pennsylvania.
And Imperial County had no sympathy. The IVC student participants, one can generalize, are accustomed to differences. Even within their small group one person was the only Columbian in the room, another was the only white person. These young adopted Chinese women should not be so worried about their differences to from the world around them. They should find their self-worth in themselves and the people who love them. Thus concluded the group who are accustomed to being “different”.
The hangout discussion lead by the Film Forward monitors focused less on the film and more on the personal stories of the girls. The participants from Arizona State University included an adopted student who was born in China and was willing to share her experiences. Our group was extremely engaged in the discussion with her and her personal comments on whether her own journey to find identity was found inside or outside her physical appearance.
I absolutely love the Film Forward program and I love holding it at the museum. The students were enthusiastic and engaged with other students who were enthusiastic and engaged. It sparks conversations and broadens viewpoints for all involved. It was fantastic to watch; and to be a part of. After the discussion digitally concluded, we screened the film a second time and the lively conversation continued into the afternoon.

3,000 Artifacts in a Day event

Twenty-four volunteers helped curate 1,908 artifacts.

Saturday the museum held a 14-hour, 3,000 Artifacts in a Day event: 10am – midnight. Twenty four volunteers made good headway toward the ambitious goal, contributing over a hundred hours combined.  People actually started working around 9:00am and came throughout the day. At the end of the day, around 8pm, a  group of IVC students arrived and gave the event a second wind. We worked through the night.

Normally our volunteers complete 600 artifacts in a week, so trying to re-curate 3,000 in one day was a large goal. In the end about 1,900 artifacts were moved from temporary storage into permanent storage.

Imperial Valley College students curated through the night.

Some of the archaeologists who originally collected the artifacts were on hand to talk about the significance of the collections and their experience in the field. Volunteers were also invited on tours of the collection rooms, where they received a behind the scenes look at the process of starting a new museum. 

One of our volunteers, a new curator, saw a sign posted on the wall that the most someone had curated in a day was 161 artifacts. Intending to stay from 10:30am-2pm, he actually worked until 7pm to beat that number. “I was late,” he said, “I came at 10:30. I had to put in my time.” When he left, we tallied up his total: 181 artifacts.

At the very end of the evening, we screened the movie “Somewhere Between” as part of the Sundance Institute, and their partners, Film Forward program. The documentary records the life experience of 7 young girls who were adopted into American families from Asia. I continued to lead the curation, but I heard some stimulating conversation going on during the movie. Curation and movie = success.