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.

(Paul Piazza, director of the central Arizona division of the historical society, refuses to comment on the firing, which Price has appealed.)

The fundamental problem with the museum, the staffers say, is that complicated events are distilled down to intellectually insulting historical fast food.

One of the main themes in the museum seems to be that white people--including members of the Salt River Valley Water Users Association--transformed the Valley from a sparse desert into a lush oasis where the "desert blooms."

Unmentioned in any significant way is a painful reality: The Valley was a rich riparian area before whites arrived, and irrigation projects diverted water from the farms of Pima Indians, forcing them into dependency and starvation.

In short, certain exhibits lack counterbalancing views. There is no significant exploration of the point of view of Pima Indians, who are relegated to the role of idealized Indians, craftmakers, masters of Sonoran Desert cuisine. (Although several Historical Society and museum officials say they have not given short shrift to the Pima hardships, Paul Piazza himself allows that the Pima point of view should be fleshed out a bit more.)

And there's scant attention paid to serious environmental degradation brought on by the modern agriculture and irrigation practices.

It's an insensitive museum, the staffers say, and inaccurate to boot.
Racial stereotypes don't seem to be adequately explained; one display of a general store includes a poster depicting a very slant-eyed Chinese man in a pigtail and funny pajamas, glaring fiercely at a rat.

The poster apparently advertises rat poison.
But the vicious drawing makes one wonder whether the rat-poison company also advocated exterminating the Chinese. And there's no label to explain it.

A poster depicting a romanticized Indian maiden selling Wright's Indian Vegetable pills--which are touted as a cure for headaches, dyspepsia, dysentery, fever and ague--is also unexplained.

Staffers say Latinos have complained about what they see as inadequately explained citrus ads that show a "lazy Mexican" and an Indian promoting "Tonto" (which means "stupid" in Spanish) oranges. (One museum caption does mention that the stereotypes could be considered offensive today.)

"This is a state museum funded by tax dollars," says one state worker. "It is supposed to be multicultural. It is not. It is supposed to be accurate. It is not. The taxpayers deserve more than this. The museum is embarrassing."

Robert Lynch will be the first to say the Marley Center is one of the most beautiful museums in the state.

The two-story, 80,000-square-foot, red-brick building sits elegantly atop a hill. Its sloping flagstone walkway and spacious interior terrace are landscaped with paloverdes and mesquite that explode into blooms in the springtime. Stately doors made of heavy glass open to a marble-floored lobby.

The exhibit galleries, the theatre, the library, the gleaming bathrooms, even the little store sporting high-end airport gift-shop stuff like roadrunner wind chimes--all are wonderful spaces, says Lynch.

Unless you happen to have a physical disability.
Lynch, an architect and an advocate for people with disabilities, was stricken with polio as a youngster. He must use a wheelchair to get around.

He is particularly sensitive to buildings that are not accessible to people in wheelchairs. In fact, Lynch helped push through a state law that contained almost all of the rules on building accessibility that are now demanded by its successor, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The Marley Center violates both laws in very basic ways, Lynch says.
People in wheelchairs can't enter through the front doors without assistance. They can't enter the exhibit galleries without assistance. They can't use the bathrooms safely.

And people who can't hear have no way of understanding several videos that are critical to the exhibits.

"Some able-bodied people might consider these minor things," says Lynch, "but to us it is major." Lynch says he talked to officials a month before the museum opened and was told that things were being "taken care of."

Lynch hasn't been the only advocate to complain about the state museum.
Eight years ago, the museum's planners noted that "devices for the hearing-impaired" should be readily available when the museum opened.

In 1992, an in-house communique circulated through the Tucson and Phoenix offices noted that "the video programs which will be a large part of the overall program in Phoenix are, under this [disability] law, discriminatory."

The videos, however, still do not have captioning.
In February, Isabella Rice, a staffer with the Disability Ministries Advisory Board in Phoenix, a church-sponsored advocacy group for people with disabilities, wrote to Piazza: "While understanding that budgets are constrained, it makes no sense to build a brand-new facility and not adhere to ADA guidelines," she wrote.

". . . the disabled population is entitled, by law, to have access to all public, city, state facilities. Your facility is no exception." (Rice did not return New Times' telephone calls.)

The Mayor's Committee on Disability Concerns, sponsored by the City of Tempe, also chastised the Marley Center for not following the law.

"We just screwed up, what can I say?" says Mike Weber, executive director of the Historical Society, when asked why a video in one gallery had no such accommodations. "It [the video] was a cute animation, and we focused on that and didn't put in the captioning."

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