Mesa museums see economic difficulties as learning experiences - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa museums see economic difficulties as learning experiences

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Posted: Monday, April 23, 2012 7:00 am | Updated: 12:53 pm, Fri Jul 5, 2013.

Two Mesa museums are holding their own despite the economic downturn. The Mesa Historical Museum and Arizona Museum of Natural History were both impacted by the recession, but it also changed their operations for the better.

Like other nonprofit organizations, the Mesa Historical Museum, with locations at 2345 N. Horne (Lehi campus) and 51 E. Main St. in downtown Mesa, suffered initially with the recession.

“A lot of the funding that we seek comes from state or federal governments,” said Lisa Anderson, president and CEO of the Mesa Historical Museum, an independent organization, not owned by the City of Mesa. “The cities, state and federal governments have severely cut back with the funds they give to nonprofits, especially with the arts. The same amount of money is not available and the money that is available is more competitive.”

As a result, the museum had to cut its paid staff, Anderson said. But surprisingly, the economy had a reverse effect on consumers. Museum admission numbers have gone up.

“Museums across the country have seen an increase in attendance because they’re still a very affordable thing that people can do with their family,” said Anderson. Museum admission is $5 for the general public. In addition to admission fees, the museum’s income is from donations, grants, corporate support and membership fees.

Another reason why admissions may be going up for the Mesa Historical Museum is its popular “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience” exhibition seen at five different locations across the Valley. Play Ball, which first opened in January 2009, is the first and only spring training-related collection in the nation and attracts thousands of visitors every year.

“There’s really not many things more iconic in Arizona than baseball, and it is part of who we are as a state,” Anderson said. “With 15 teams training here every year and our own hometown team, the Diamondbacks, Arizonans have a real love for the game.”

In fact, the exhibits gained so much popularity that plans to build a freestanding spring training museum are in order. Although plans haven’t been finalized yet, Anderson expects the museum to be completed within the next five years.

The museum’s second most popular exhibition is “Thanks for Tuning In: The Wallace and Ladmo Show.” The exhibition about the television program that was produced and broadcast in Arizona includes artifacts showcasing the history of the show that transcended three generations of Arizonans.

“We developed two programs around two of Arizona’s most iconic things,” Anderson said.

The Arizona Museum of Natural History, located at 53 N. Macdonald St., has also seen an increase in admission despite an increased admission fee from $9 to $10 since the 2009 fiscal year, according to Thomas Wilson, its director.

“We’ve had anywhere between 2 (percent) and 7 percent growth every year since 2008, and I think that is partially attributed to the fact that sometimes, when the economy is in difficulties, people tend to stay home and use amenities nearby,” said Wilson. “So instead of going to Disneyland or maybe even the Grand Canyon, they come to places like this.”

The City of Mesa, which owns the Arizona Museum of Natural History, Mesa Arts Center and Arizona Museum for Youth, underwent two huge staffing crises in the past decade.

“Our budget had been slashed 50 percent about six or seven years ago,” said Yvonne Petersen, volunteer coordinator at the Arizona Museum of Natural History. “We lost half of our staff and half of our budget and three years after that, we were cut 30 percent and lost three more full-time people.”

The museum now has 15 full-time paid employees. But the key to the museum’s survival has come from the help of the volunteers.

“This museum, honestly, could not keep its doors open without volunteers,” said Petersen.

Nearly 200 people volunteer at the museum, helping in various areas such as daily administration, building exhibits and giving tours. In 2011, the total number of volunteer hours donated was 17,707, equating to approximately nine full-time employees. At an average wage, this represents about $378,221. Volunteer help also has allowed the museum to focus efforts on building exhibitions in-house rather than renting exhibits, as it used to.

A recent exhibition is “Rulers of the Prehistoric Skies,” displaying several models of Pterosaurs, flying reptiles of the Mesozoic era. The life-size model of one type of Pterosaur called Pteradon sternbergi was built entirely by volunteer Edward Mack. It took him nearly seven months to complete, but like the other volunteers at the museum, he did it because it’s what he loves to do.

“I find it a fascinating place to work,” Mack said about the museum.

Mack, a Mesa resident, said the museum staff is very cooperative and they have the materials and opportunities to explore. “That’s what excites me more than anything else.”

Surviving in a weak economy was a learning experience for both the Mesa Historical Museum and Arizona Museum of Natural History, which led to changes in exhibits and marketing strategies. Both started using social media, which Wilson describes as a bigger bang for the buck.

“We’ve started to really penetrate social media markets and that has a viral, exponential, almost atomic explosion type of reach so we’re just now, in the last six months, working on that,” said Wilson.

In looking toward the future of museums, Anderson said what’s needed is continued interest from the public.

“What we need is for people in the community to care about their own heritage, about the cultural resources in the community so that they’re actively supporting organizations like ours, so that when there is an issue with the economy, we don’t lose our great institutions,” Anderson said.

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