When we were up in Flagstaff recently we had a special treat. The Director of the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), gave us a tour of the Easton Collection Center, which is a state of the art facility on a hill just opposite the museum. It is located among the converted chicken coops of a late 19th century ranch on the site that were made into housing units for scholars and interns. It is a beautiful spot.
The story reads like a fairy tale which I guess becomes more so with each retelling. Robert Breunig had been a curator at the museum in 1970’s but only came back as director in 2003 after a term as director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center. In Flagstaff he inherited a museum in financial straights, with a great collection and a dedicated staff but with substandard storage facilities. In fact, there was a very real risk of losing much needed grants if he did not upgrade.
Six months into his tenure he held an event for his Plateau Society (higher end members) and told them that the priority of the institution was a to build a new conservation center and storage facility. One couple who had been involved with the institution but never given more than $1,000 at a time asked him to call them on that Monday morning, which he did and was asked to pay them a visit. They had talked for about an hour after he arrived when the lady of the house asked if three million dollars would help in this endeavor. He practically fell off his chair because this is what dreams are made of, not the usual slogging to raise funds. The couple did have two conditions, however. One was that he interview their architect, Jim Roberts, not insisting that he hire him, however, and the other was a little vaguer. They said, “Make it the best you can”.
Every museum has many constituencies and MNA is no exception. One of their most important are the Native Americans of the Colorado Plateau, including the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and White Mountain Apache. The museum put together several planning committees and one was solely for the Indians, who, as you might imagine had several concerns. They desired for one that the entrance of the Collection Center face East, also that the building have a connection to the San Francisco Peaks which have a religious significance for them; further the building needed to be in tune with the seasons and wherever possible made with local materials.
As surprising as it may seem the architect and the director got along extremely well and both had some of the same concepts, one being to build a natural living roof. This was a new one to me but not to architects in general. The Center was built with a slanted roof topped with earth planted with local grasses, which keeps the building at a more consistent temperature. Solar panels at one end supply about one third of it’s needed electricity. During the rainy season the water runoff goes into a 22,500 gallon tank which in normal years tides them over the dry season.
The architect came up with a wonderful design and the Indians were pleased with the concept as were the other constituencies. Their was just one problem, it would cost over twice as much as they had so they made plans to put the project on hold until they could raise the needed funds. When the director told the donors, however, they weren’t having any of that. They immediately offered to contribute another 3 ½ million but again on the condition that he make it “as good as you can”.
When it was time for the ground breaking in February of 2008 there was just one more problem and that was political in nature. The donors had said this was not about them, it was about the museum and they did not want their name mentioned. Robert asked them one last time a month before the opening whether he could please use their name because everyone would want to thank someone, and all would be terribly curious. I am sure it would also start a rumor mill that could cause all kinds of embarrassing conversations for the director. Anyway, they continued to say no until the day before the ground breaking when they phoned him to say that they had been thinking about it and he could use their names, Elizabeth and Harold Easton. Robert described humorously the scramble to redo the programs and make this change in the celebrations. The Eastons did draw the line at having their pictures up in the entryway.
In the entrance on Equinox and Solstice the light comes through a window slot into the East-facing entrance and shines in the exact center of the inner metal door to where the collections are stored at 65 degrees Fahrenheit with 35 % humidity.
One of the big issues is natural light which the Indians thought was important and the conservators were, of course, against. The perfect compromise was motion sensors so that when you walk into the conservation center the skylights slowly open and close again when you leave.
The collections are all stored in rolling cabinets and categorized according to materials. I believe we were told that there are over 300,000 etymological specimens alone. There are rows and rows of rolled textiles. Abundant ceramics from all the tribes, with many archeological objects as well. Shards, however, are housed elsewhere.
Guess what one of the results of building a state of the art Collection Center is? More collectors want to donate their collections. One of the recent donations is a collection of contemporary-style intricately carved Katsina dolls from about 1990 to the present.