Tag Archives: museums

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 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.

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: http://www.connectingtocollections.org/courses/outreach-activities-for-collections-care/

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 http://www.fieldstonealliance.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=152

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.

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: http://magneticmuseums.com/

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.

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