The Museum That Couldn't Think Straight

It's named after Kemper Marley, the apparent inspiration for the murder of newsman Don Bolles. It's full of inaccuracies, racism, Chamber of Commerce blather and third-rate gimmickry.

Like many other embarrassing elements of recent Arizona history, Kemper Marley's link to the state's most famous assassination is not addressed in the state's newest history museum.

Officials of the Arizona Historical Society, a state agency, are extraordinarily proud of the gimmicky, $10 million Marley Center museum, which focuses on the "interpretive" history of central Arizona in the 20th century.

The museum, at 1300 North College in Tempe, opened just in time for last January's Super Bowl festivities. But the grand opening did not come until five years after the building was constructed, and even then, only half of the exhibits was completed. Portions of those exhibits, some staffers say, are so intellectually dishonest as to be laughable.

Historical Society officials, of course, do not take that view. They defend the integrity of the exhibits just as earnestly as they defend naming the museum after Kemper Marley.

Marley, they say, was maligned by a mudslinging press corps for no good reason.

Actually, even before he was publicly associated with the 1976 car-bomb murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, Kemper Marley enjoyed a dubious reputation in central Arizona.

Marley, who died in 1990, amassed his multimillion-dollar fortune through ranching, liquor wholesaling, real estate.

Some romanticized him into an archetype--the good ol' Arizona boy who made up for a lack of book learning with hard work and guts.

Don Bolles did not agree.
He wrote stories detailing the seamy side of Kemper Marley: grand theft charges levied against Marley while he served on a state highway commission (he was eventually acquitted); allegations that Marley was connected to liquor-label altering; claims of Marley-linked nepotism on a state commission; contentions that Marley, a nominee for the racing commission, also held liquor contracts with the racetrack monopoly.

After Bolles was mortally wounded in June 1976--the reporter died 11 days after the Phoenix bombing, having endured the amputations of both legs and one arm--police and prosecutors advanced the "Marley Theory," which argued that Kemper Marley's disciple and sidekick Max Dunlap engineered the assassination because Marley hated a story Bolles had written. Dunlap eventually wound up in prison for the murder, but Marley himself was only implicated, never charged. No one could ever prove he had asked Dunlap to kill Bolles.

Yet ten years after Bolles died, the very state whose prosecutors trumpeted the Marley Theory actually named a museum in Marley's honor.

To get his name enshrined for future generations, all Marley had to do was put up a $1 million donation of "seed money." That money was used to start the museum, which for the most part offers a rosy interpretation of 20th-century central Arizona history, a particularly rapacious period in which people like Kemper Marley made fortunes, more than occasionally in suspicious ways.

Earlier this year, some Marley Center staffers attempted to add what is left of Don Bolles' shattered car to the museum collection. Exhibiting the car would bring an element of honesty to the museum and prove, the staffers said, that not even Kemper Marley could launder his name.

The Bolles family, however, found the concept distasteful. And, of course, acquiring the exploded Bolles vehicle would have needed approval from the Arizona Historical Society Board--the body that elected to name the museum after Marley in the first place.

"Your role in business, in ranching and cattle growing and your many other enterprises as well as your generous financial support make it appropriate that this institution name this new museum of Arizona History in your honor," James Moss, the executive director of the Historical Society, wrote in a 1986 letter to Marley.

"I am in accord with everything you say in the letter," Marley wrote back.
And then the old man carefully approved designs for the museum signs that would bear his moniker.

From that point forward, however, things have not gone smoothly for the Marley Center.

Internal records reveal that the museum, which has received most of its funding from federal, state and municipal taxpayers, has been beset with avoidable--sometimes comical--administrative problems:

* Despite warnings over four years from staffers as well as advocates for people with disabilities, the museum opened without adhering to very basic elements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. For example, people in wheelchairs simply cannot use the facility unassisted.

* Last year, a consultant hired by the state warned that the Legislature was funneling a disproportionate amount of funds to the Marley Center, shorting the Historical Society's three other museums, which, the consultant said, are in need of more modern facilities to store decaying collections.

* Despite repeated warnings from in-house historians, the museum's opening exhibits have been criticized for lack of historical perspective, subtle insensitivity to minorities, simplistic explanations, inconsistent labeling, factual errors and the occasional obvious racial stereotype.

* And just like the Phoenix Country Club, where back-room power brokers such as Marley cut deals in the 1950s, the current exhibits seem to have excluded blacks and Jews.

It is a late spring evening at an east Phoenix eatery.
Several members of the Arizona Historical Society staff huddle at a table drinking coffee. They have consented to talk to New Times only if their names are not used. One staffer, Anna Price, has already been fired because she questioned the accuracy of one exhibit, they say. These staffers fear that they, too, will eventually be terminated if their names are used.

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