The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

85° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Scratching the surface of the Arizona State Museum

    Timothy Galaz
    Timothy Galaz / Arizona Daily Wildcat Arthur Vokes, of the Arizona State Museum goes through some of his backed inventory of artifacts. He is in the process of moving the inventory into more archival and acid free storage.

    The Arizona State Museum might be the last thing that most people walking near Park Avenue and University Boulevard would want to visit. I was one of those people.

    Yet walking by the building’s red brick façade almost every day, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on behind the scenes. What I discovered was more than I expected.

    Do not handle with care

    Patrick Lyons, head of collections and acting associate director at the museum, leads me to a room full of pottery on the ground floor.

    This room, which displays the museum’s permanent collection of Southwestern pottery, is rather small. You can walk around the entire room in less than a minute and impatient visitors can see everything on display within a half-hour.

    But the room holds many surprises. The museum houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southwestern pottery anywhere, of which a small percentage is on actual display in this room. The Arnold and Doris Roland Wall of Pots serves as the room’s impressive centerpiece, and provides a cross section of ancient and contemporary Southwestern ceramics.

    One innovative way in which the state museum provides visitors with access to its comprehensive research collection is through the Virtual Vault, which consists of a monitor and an interactive touchscreen display connected a multimedia database of artifacts.

    Many of the items from the actual vault, located directly behind the display, have been photographed from multiple angles to create a virtual version of that object. You can select, say, a Hopi grain storage pot and manipulate it virtually to see it from different angles without fear of breaking it.

    Lyons then leads me into the Agnese and Emil Haury Southwest Native Nations Pottery Vault, a project that was developed over eight years.

    Entering the state-of-the-art conservation laboratory is like walking into a library. The vault’s constant room conditions — 72 degrees Fahrenheit at 32 percent humidity — and the way our voices easily bounce off the walls contribute to the hushed atmosphere.

    Lyons directs me to a wide filing cabinet with short drawers. He pulls out a drawer. Nestled within acid-free boxes are pots smaller than your palm that come from the Point of Pines area near the San Carlos Apache Reservation of San Carlos, Ariz.

    As he puts on a white fabric glove and picks up a miniature, Lyons’ arms and hands move with a smooth ease that comes from years of experience.

    This was an experience that was different than using the Virtual Vault where you can also choose to watch a featurette about the history behind the object, complete with soothing music and voiceover.

    A methodical mess

    The processing room of the museum’s archeological repository on the second floor looks cluttered. On the day of my visit, Arthur Vokes, curator of archaeological repository, and his team of student employees are preparing for a move to the museum’s south building.

    Binders and reports dating back 20 years or more fill the cabinets and shelves. Desks are buried beneath stacks of papers and stuffed manila folders. White acid-free storage boxes are stacked around the desks and mark the room’s different walkways. The processing table is the only area where you can see any table surface.

    In the room ahead, there are grayish-green metal shelves covered with cardboard boxes and the occasional metate, a Mesoamerican mortar used to grind seeds and grain, that look as if they’re waiting to be checked out. The fact that the repository at the museum is currently housed in a former library only adds to this effect.

    The room to the right of the processing area used to be the registrar’s office. The registrar contacted borrowers, tracked their loans, handled the transportation of artifacts and handled all of the paperwork for loans.

    Since the state’s latest round of budget cuts, the room now serves as a document room and waiting area for unidentified objects from donors. A collection of objects from a recently deceased Amherst, Mass., resident awaits the attention of Vokes and his team.

    But the state of these rooms masks the methodical nature of the work being carried out in the repository. Despite its seemingly haphazard state, Vokes and his employees make their way through the rooms without pausing, and are able to locate objects easily once they have the records in hand.

    As the state’s repository, the Arizona State Museum handles and processes any archaeological discoveries made within the state of Arizona.

    “”It’s one of those jobs that you never know entirely what you’re going to deal with,”” Vokes said.

    Individuals, tribe members and private companies around the state have brought items such as painted deer jawbone found buried in the ground or a 1918 light bulb with an intact filament that was discovered in a latrine. A construction crew found late-19th century Chinese ceramics at the west side of Rio Nuevo and brought it to Vokes and his team for identification.

    Of course, not every item that is brought to the repository necessarily requires the museum’s expertise.

    “”I’ve had everything from a guy come in with a rock thinking it was something that wasn’t, to a couple weeks ago we had a guy show up with a Japanese sword,”” said Vokes, who has been working for the museum for 28 years. “”He wanted the lettering translated. I don’t know Japanese, so I couldn’t help him. But we sent him over to Modern Languages to see if someone could help.””


    Negatives, codes and secrets

    The real chaos, however, can be found among the deceptively neat shelves of the repository.

    Katie MacFarland, an anthropology graduate student, is working to bring order to some of the collections.

    “”When archeological objects are out of context, then they lose their value as far as research is concerned,”” said MacFarland, who has been working at the repository since her sophomore year.

    One unusual project MacFarland has been tackling this semester involves photographs of an excavation project near the Grand Canyon.

    “”The researcher wasn’t extremely forthcoming with his notes, and had made it almost impossible — intentionally — to try and figure out what he had done,”” MacFarland said. “”I don’t know why.”” The photographs and negatives have lingered in the repository since the 1960s.

    In order to determine what the archeologist did with the photographs and how the previous employee organized the collection, MacFarland devised her own method of recordkeeping that involves two spreadsheets and coded shorthand. She will translate these records into notes that can be used by the next person, and then enter them into a searchable database.

    The work can be tedious and frustrating, but MacFarland said she loves it.

    “”I’ve always loved detective stories, just figuring out ways to figure out what people did. Half the detective work (for this project) is figuring out what the excavators did,”” she said.

    MacFarland grew up on the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories, and has been reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, which is about a detective who investigates crimes committed against literary characters.

    During my interview with MacFarland, a student employee returns to search for the thermos of coffee he left behind. When my interview with MacFarland concludes, he is still searching for his coffee.

    More to Discover
    Activate Search