The former Arizona Mining and Mineral Museum near the state Capitol could be open again if a bill moving through the Legislature passes.
Bills to reopen the museum have been proposed annually since it closed in 2011, but this year’s SB1200 passed the Senate and is awaiting a full vote of the House. It passed the House Appropriations Committee on a 10-1 vote March 25.
The museum was closed four years ago after then-Gov. Jan Brewer announced plans for a Centennial Museum in its place, to be funded through private donations. But the Centennial Museum never gathered enough money to open its doors as an expanded museum.
The Mineral Museum, housed in the El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium since the 1990s, was run by the former Department of Mines and Mineral Resources and staffed by one full-time curator and a legion of volunteers.
Those volunteers are rallying behind SB1200, authored by Republican Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford, to bring back a beloved place they say helped educate thousands of children a year on the state’s geological wonders.
Dick Zimmerman, a retired aerospace engineer and supporter of the museum, said students are missing out on important earth science knowledge while the museum remains defunct.
“(The reopened museum) would be a tremendous benefit to Arizona. It would bring back a tremendous education resource,” Zimmerman told the Arizona Capitol Times.
The museum was also a tourist attraction and held scientific value for researchers. The Arizona Geological Survey, a state agency, would be the right stewards for its mission, he said.
“It’s staffed by geologists and engineers. It’s a very highly thought-of agency,” Zimmerman said.
Harvey Jong volunteered at the museum for 10 years and saw students get excited about geology often. He’s now the president of the Earth Science Museum, a nonprofit that goes to schools with mineral kits to educate children.
Though the Earth Science Museum reaches kids with educational programs, it can’t match the number of children and adults who visited the museum, Jong said.
But some say reopening the museum is a huge undertaking with a miniscule budget, and the challenges of raising funds for it still exist.
SB1200 transfers the museum from the Arizona Historical Society to the Arizona Geological Survey. But the Geological Survey has some major concerns about the bill, though it is officially neutral on the proposal.
“There’s all of these little nagging details to try to make this happen,” said Lee Allison, director of the survey. “We’re a little worried about taking something on like this.”
The Centennial Museum was supposed to highlight the 5 C’s (copper, cattle, climate, citrus and cotton), an extension of the mining focus the museum had. The proposed revamped museum, according to SB1200, would include mining, minerals and natural resources, a similar mission to the Centennial Museum.
It’s an expanded focus from the old museum. The bill says the purpose of the reopened museum will be to “promote the recognition and celebration of the historical, cultural, economic and social contributions to this state made by the mining, mineral and natural resources industries in this state, including the livestock and agricultural industries.”
Because of the expanded focus, it’s not as simple as gathering up the stones and displays and throwing the doors open, Allison said.
The Historical Society received $428,300 annually for the museum, $360,800 for renting the building at 1502 W. Washington St., and $67,500 for a curator, which would be transferred to the Geological Survey. The bill initially called for waiving the rent for the first year, allowing the Geological Survey to use the appropriated funds to get the museum in operating order, but an amendment by Rep. Justin Olson removed that provision to make the bill revenue-neutral.
According to a report sent to Brewer in December from the Arizona Department of Administration, reopening the museum will cost about $2.1 million. The report gave four options for the museum: reopening it, converting it into office space for $3.1 million, selling it for an estimated $2.9 million, or leaving the building empty for no cost.
The report says the $2.1 million would cover upgrades to the building’s mechanical and electrical systems, changes to the interior and exterior, fire alarms and sprinklers, and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. It would also include reconfiguring exhibit space, improving technology and upgrading storage for collections.
STRICTLY A BUDGET ISSUE
Because of the state’s budget woes, both the ADOA and the Historical Society recommended doing nothing and leaving the building shuttered.
The Historical Society said the lack of success with fundraising to open a Centennial Museum was because of the recession, and that’s why the Historical Society recommended keeping the building closed in the report to Brewer.
“We have no reason to keep that museum closed. … It’s just strictly a budget issue,” Stuart Luther, a representative for the Historical Society, said at the March 25 legislative hearing.
Many of the specimens from the old museum are in the Historical Society’s museum at Papago Park in Tempe, Luther said, and the society created an online database of minerals as well.
The Historical Society is officially neutral on the bill.
“Our only concern is if (the Geological Survey) is the best place to go for a museum, as an agency that doesn’t run museums,” Luther said.
Griffin, the bill’s sponsor, told the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee last week that she thinks $2-million-plus could be raised through private donations to do repairs, renovations and start putting together exhibits.
“I do have a lot of commitments from a lot of people saying they would participate,” Griffin told the House Appropriations Committee.
She said the Historical Society’s recommendation was to keep the building closed, but paying rent for the museum while it sits vacant is a waste of money.
“The building has been closed, and it’s a shame. … We need to get that building back into a museum for the education purposes,” Griffin said.
The Geological Survey can take on the museum, if the bill passes, because it absorbed the Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, which used to run the program, Allison said. The Geological Survey also set up a website, complete with multimedia packages on state assets, for the potential Centennial Museum, he said.
But taking on another mission taxes an already stressed agency. Since the recession, state funds to the Geological Survey were cut by 45 percent, Allison said.
“If this is assigned to us, we’ll do the best job we can with the resources we have available. … but we don’t want to promise people that we’re going to be able to open this thing up in weeks or months and that it’s going to look just like it did,” Allison said.