For most of its 115 years, the venerable Arizona State Museum on The University of Arizona campus has been headed by archaeologists. In addition to its stature as the largest anthropology museum in the Southwest, ASM is a repository for state, federal and private archaeological collections. Its archaeologists are also actively excavating a number of sites across Arizona.
Not surprisingly, the museum’s newest director continues that tradition. Beth Grindell took the reins in mid-July, succeeding Hartman Lomawaima, who died last month following a year-long battle with cancer. She also is, notably, the first woman to hold the title.
Grindell started at ASM in 1988, when she was a graduate student in the UA anthropology department, and joined the staff full-time in 1993. She earned her doctorate in 1998.
Starting out in what is now the archaeological records office, Grindell managed and computerized the museum’s decades-old collection of records of archaeological sites across the state. She said those records are now online and the project pays for itself because archaeological contractors need to do searches and rely on the data before they start excavating.
After earning her doctorate in 1998, she became an assistant curator of archaeology, then later the acting associate director and associate director before becoming director.
“I've seen this museum from every seat you can sit in,” Grindell said.
Grindell has been managing a hefty workload over the last year. Much of her work was focused on establishing the museum’s presence in Downtown Tucson. She also has been assuming other duties, including cultivating donors and board members.
“I was just putting together a list of people I need to call to explain what is going on here, hoping to continue relationships forged over the years. So far, people understand and have been very considerate and interested,” she said.
Despite several years of fund-raising experience, Grindell said, “Hartman had a knack for making friends, and I don’t know that I have that, yet.”
In addition to the museum’s larger-scale plans, she also deals with day-to-day operations.
My personal priority I really think is to spend some time with staff, recreating a new vision of how the museum funds itself. We have relied for 115 years on the state and over the last 15 or 20 we have been successful at raising grants and earned income. But its becoming essential to think more broadly how we do that.”
ASM has been searching for new ways to recover costs. One is collecting management fees for caring for private and other research collections over time, rather than charge a single up-front fee for the service.
User fees are another avenue. The popular Southwest Indian Arts Fair held each year now charges an admission fee to offset the heavy costs of bringing artists and their works to Tucson for the event. Another is a summer camp for adults who want to experience what it’s like being an archaeologist for a week.
It could be a delicate financial balancing act. ASM’s major strategic plan goal is opening a facility at downtown Tucson's Rio Nuevo district, as well as continue its mandated responsibilities in managing the vast archaeological collections, including the construction of a new repository, dealing with repatriation issues with several American Indian nations, and “Keeping ourselves the premier museum on southwestern culture, as Dr. (Robert) Shelton calls us. We like that. That’s exactly what we want to be. That has been and will be our mission, but how we go about managing that mission needs to change.”
The University will launch a search for a new permanent director in a year. She said she isn’t sure she’ll apply for the position, but right now she has a chance to take the reins and see what she thinks about it. She also said there are some solid reasons for searching for a new director.
One is to move ASM through its accreditation process with the American Association of Museums by November. Another is to reassure the city of Tucson about ASM’s leadership during the construction of Rio Nuevo.
“I am strongly convinced that the museum of anthropology is really what can help Tucson and the state of Arizona find itself and recreate itself as a 21st century state," Grindell said.
While the ASM responsible for preserving treasures of the past, Grindell also remains focused on the future.
“A museum of anthropology is really about creating identity for us as a community based on our history, where we come from. And I mean ‘we’ in a global sense. We are all inheritors, if not genetically then culturally, of people who have been here for 10,000 years. And we can use that sense of history and a shared past to recreate where we want to be in the future. And I think that is what the role of the museum is about. It’s not just remembering the past. It’s about using the past to move us into the future.”