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.

(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."

Weber blames the state Department of Administration, which built the Marley Center, for not making sure the building complied with disability law.

The Department of Administration says the building was "in compliance" when it was built and refused to comment further.

Given that the Historical Society and museum administrators were repeatedly warned the building was out of compliance before it opened, neither explanation makes sense.

Staffers who raised disability concerns before the opening say they were told then that the administration was "working on" the problems. They are still told that today.

Hasty measures have been taken. People who can't hear can ask for scripts of the videos, and an aide proficient in sign language is available if people call ahead, says museum director Nancy Dallet.

Until the doors get fixed, there's generally someone around to help people in wheelchairs get into the museum.

But no official can say how much it will cost to fix the mistakes, and whatever the cost, taxpayers will pay the bill.

Historical Society officials explain away problems in complying with disabled-access laws by saying they were in a "rush" to get the museum open for this year's Super Bowl.

But actually, there was no real rush.
It took five years to get the museum open.
The museum's "conceptual plan," complete with rough drawings and gallery concepts, was completed by the Brooklyn-based American History Workshop in 1989. The plan, funded by Kemper Marley's seed money, goes a long way toward explaining why three exhibits conjured up by the workshop seem more like boosterism for agribusiness and urban development than reasoned reflections of historical reality.

The New York group lists among its research sources Arizona Highways, the Arizona Office of Tourism, university history professors, visitors bureaus, developers and major corporations, including Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Company.

The plan seems designed to reel in corporate donations.
And to please the Legislature.
In fact, the Legislature has taken on the Marley Center as one of its favorite causes. It funded the building in 1990 and promised to pay operating expenses and salaries. All the Historical Society had to do was pay for exhibits--about $4.5 million in total--through private donations.

The building itself was completed in 1991. A nine-member staff of state employees moved into the Marley Center in 1992.

But the museum didn't open.
As well as anyone can explain it, the reason the museum remained closed centers on the Historical Society's inability to raise the money for the private exhibits.

In its 112 years of existence (the Historical Society is 28 years older than the state itself), the society has spun itself into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. There are seven divisions. Four are geographical and have their own museums and boards. Then there is the exhibits division. And the publications division. And the administrative division. And there is the Arizona Historical Society Foundation, which raised money for the society.

All of the divisions answer to the Arizona Historical Society board of directors, the only state board with no legislative or gubernatorial appointees. The board appoints its own members.

The board, criticized last year by the state auditor general for ineffectiveness and lack of diversity, consists in large part of rich people from "old" Arizona families, history buffs and society matrons.

A consultant for the auditor general last year blasted the agency for funneling funds to the new Tempe museum, while ignoring the poor storage conditions for collections at museums in Yuma, Flagstaff and Tucson. (For the last two years, the Marley Center has consumed about $2 million of the agency's $4 million total annual budget.)

In 1994, the society fired the foundation that was supposed to raise the private money to build exhibits at the new museum. (The foundation says it gave the society a total of about $2.4 million, including the $1 million Marley seed money.)

Weber says the foundation tried to meddle in administrative affairs and didn't raise enough money.

Members of the foundation say the Historical Society administration was inept, disorganized and gave no clear picture of what money should be raised for what project.

Mark Killian, speaker of the state House of Representatives, transferred control of the Marley Center to the Department of Library and Archives, which he could do under House rules without a legislative vote. Killian said he wanted to send the Historical Society a "message" to get the museum open.

By what former Phoenix mayor John Driggs says is simply coincidence, Driggs, the speaker's cousin, took over fund raising for the Marley Center. Driggs will earn $150,000 under a two-year state contract to raise private funds for the exhibits.

But those contributions haven't been all that private.
Driggs says that he's raised $2.6 million so far.
About one fourth of that money comes from central Arizona cities. Driggs also hopes to persuade the City of Phoenix to donate an additional half-million dollars through an incredibly complicated deal he's engineered.

Here's how it would work: Phoenix pledges the Marley Center about $500,000. In return, the state appropriates an additional $50,000 to the Marley Center yearly for ten years. The Marley Center contracts for services from the Phoenix Museum of History (where Driggs' brother Gary happens to serve on the board) and pays the Phoenix museum the yearly $50,000 it gets from the Legislature. This goes on until the city museum gets back the sum that the city gave the Marley Center in the first place.

In Driggs' view, the plan is neither a shell game nor a loan.
He needs the Phoenix money up front, he says, to get further donations from other municipalities.

And he'll be the first to say a lot of the money expected from private corporations is pledged--meaning that it will come in over a number of years.

So all the exhibits still haven't been completed.

Shortly after the Marley Center opened, Michael Freisinger, a curator for the Arizona State Parks museums, visited the new facility at least twice.

He viewed the museum's outside exhibit, "Roosevelt Dam Terrace," which was funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior and extols the glories of Roosevelt Dam.

He looked at the exhibits inside the building.
He saw the traveling Geronimo exhibit, which was designed by Historical Society staffers. The exhibit is not in the least racist; in fact, it takes the point of view of Apache Indians. Freisinger liked it.

But the exhibits conceived by the American History Workshop--"Foundations of Central Arizona History: 1860 to 1912" and "Desert Blooms"--troubled him.

Freisinger expressed his disappointment in a March 1992 memo copied to Paul Piazza, the society's Central Arizona division director, and Nancy Dallet, a former American History Workshop researcher who was the lead planner, researcher and writer for the museum's opening exhibits. Dallet now is the Marley Center museum department head.

"Overall, I found the exhibits to be well-constructed with quality materials," Freisinger noted. "The physical layouts and exhibit design attributes are excellent. Some of the context, text and interpretation is faulty, misleading and inaccurate."

He pointed out that the vane on a huge windmill in an exhibit on the second floor was upside down. (It was later fixed.)

Freisinger was especially disappointed with the Foundations of Central Arizona History gallery. "The overall main theme is oversimplified, vague and somewhat confusing. . . . The interpretation level of the exhibit is weak. There is inconsistent labeling of objects.

". . . the exhibit cases are too low," he went on. "The text cannot be read without getting down on your hands and knees."

Among other things, Freisinger noted that "a small relief map has Lake Havasu City on it. Since the dates are clearly indicated as 1860-1912 [sic]. This is confusing, since Lake Havasu City was formed in 1964."

Dallet defended herself in a follow-up memo to Mike Weber: "The overall theme [of the Foundations gallery] is not oversimplified or vague," she wrote.

"We are not writing a dissertation, nor are we interpreting the nuances of someone else's dissertation. We are presenting a history for the public."

She explained away Lake Havasu City's placement in an exhibit that predates it by several decades this way: The map is not a "history lesson" but a "geographical orientation point."

"The towns identified (including Lake Havasu City) were chosen because they give a sense of scale to the visitor, not because of their history," wrote Nancy Dallet.

Freisinger refuses to comment to New Times.
Piazza says Freisinger was put up to criticizing the museum by some of his friends who were "personally unhappy with the exhibit."

"We are not a typical history museum," says Piazza, a former art museum director. "You're not going to see rows and rows and rows of guns, rows and rows and rows of buttons and, for the most part, reams and reams and reams of data.

"We are far more interested in getting across ideas and concepts to people."
That's why, for instance, a video about Teddy Roosevelt's 1902 meeting with the Salt River Valley Water Users Association in a Phoenix opera house is perfectly okay--even though Teddy Roosevelt didn't visit the Valley until 1911, and the Salt River Valley Water Users Association wasn't officially formed until 1903.

Piazza acknowledges the video is fantasy. That "exact thing didn't happen," he admits. But, he contends, the video does make the key points about the controversy over building the dam.

He says upcoming exhibits will include data about blacks and Jews and will more fully explore the Pima Indians in a section called "Communities of Vision and Persistence," which will also feature Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West.

Exhibits on boom towns, the military and communities of tourists and retirees are planned. There will also be a "Futures Lab."

Piazza explains away staff complaints about inaccuracies in existing displays as "sour grapes" complaints coming from people who don't want to support the interpretive direction the museum has taken.

But documents reveal that many problems brought up years and months ago now must be corrected. In a memo in late March, Piazza says, "We obviously have discovered a lot that needs to be done and redone. Some of it, fortunately, can be done inexpensively--others may involve major cost."

Changing things is not unusual for a recently opened museum, he says.
He refers to the current displays as "exhibits in progress."

On a weekday afternoon in May, a foursome of winter visitors from Minnesota tours the Desert Blooms gallery at the Marley Center. The tourists are in a part of the gallery called "At the Fair"; this portion was conceived by the American History Workshop.

They stand before a wood cutout of a fortuneteller with beguiling eyes. She sits in front of a painted backdrop, an Arizona scene complete with saguaros and palm trees.

"Gaze into your Agri-Future," says a sign.
"Pick a card, any card," says another sign.
One of the men presses a plastic likeness of a playing card on the fortuneteller's "table."

A video in the display's "crystal ball" lights up.
The crystal ball reveals a photo of harvest baskets.
"Did you know farmworkers who fill these baskets are among the lowest paid in the United States?" a female voice asks.

The voice goes on. It says growers could double farmworkers' salaries if only the consumer would be willing to pay more for produce--"11 cents more for lettuce," for instance. This information does not seem to interest the winter visitors from Minnesota.

Right next to the fortuneteller display is a fun-house mirror. "Do you cotton to cotton?" a sign asks the Minnesota visitors viewing their own likenesses in a mirror.

A woman tries to play an electronic quiz game about Arizona agriculture. She seems puzzled. The game has no instructions.

Even so, she thinks the museum is "absolutely fantastic."
The woman, by the way, has no idea who in the world Kemper Marley was.

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